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Say Anything - Oliver Appropriate Music Album Reviews

In what is billed as the emo band’s farewell album, Max Bemis concocts a tangled rock opera about a burnt-out singer grappling with his rage and his sexuality.

An emo rock opera might provoke some well-deserved eye-rolls in a post-American Idiot era. But Say Anything’s Max Bemis is no stranger to the form: His 2004 cult hit, ...Is a Real Boy, for all of its goofy pop-punk hooks and lyrics about phone sex, was originally conceived as a play, right down to its producer, Hedwig and the Angry Inch writer Stephen Trask. So it’s fitting that Bemis returned to the format for the band’s final record, Oliver Appropriate. For Say Anything, the outlandish nature of the stage—the heightened emotions, the unsubtle criticisms of politics and culture—lends structure to what might otherwise be unbridled hormonal rage.

And in case it has to be said about a man who frequently screams “I hate everyone” on stage, Bemis has rage in spades. Enough rage for a nine-page screed ahead of their final record. Enough rage for a double-album about mid-aughts emo. Enough rage for a line like, “You are a vacuous soldier of the thrift-store Gestapo.” On Oliver Appropriate, he channels his rage into Oliver, the album’s protagonist, a suspiciously familiar “singer of a burnt-out emo/indie punk band past their peak,” as he put it in the record’s manifesto. But this dissonance between “Max” and “Oliver” means that Bemis, finally, can write about himself without really writing about himself. It means that Oliver—who’s also described as “the bastard son of Columbine” and “a thinly veiled critique of new age masculinity”—could really be any beanie-wearing dude doing mental backflips to reconcile his sexual proclivities with his self-image.

The 14 songs on Oliver Appropriate detail two days in the life of this prototypical millennial with the specificity of a good script, down to the scene-setting he sings on album opener “The Band Fuel”: “The dream of Julian Casablancas, gyro salesmen and a stranger in my blankets. Awoken by Amazon Drones.” As has become tradition, the record also includes its fair share of digs at his fellow failed indie musicians—“I know a lot of men in hardcore bands who collectively fund the Colombians,” he sneers on “Pink Snot.”

But all of this score-settling is really a bait-and-switch for the crux of the album, a sexual confrontation that finds seemingly straight Oliver/Max confusingly in love with a man. Bemis himself came out as bisexual in 2018. Max dealt with it by writing this record. Oliver deals with it by slitting his lover’s throat.

Don’t be surprised, though, if you miss that morbid detail upon first listen. It’s a tossed off line—“I’ll slit your throat and leave you gaping”—that seems commonplace in a discography full of macabre lyrics sung with the pithy delivery of mediocre karaoke. The undertones of sexual confusion, made explicit in Bemis’ manifesto, are only briefly mentioned in the record itself. The most frank discussion of Oliver’s internalized, violent homophobia is on “Your Father,” a song about parental disapproval sung, somewhat ironically, by a man and a woman, neither of which are Bemis (creative partner Karl Kuehn and Bemis’ wife Sherri DuPree, respectively). Without the context that Bemis’ personal life and highly detailed essay provide, the record’s plotline is muddied and morally ambiguous at best.

But in its sharpest moments, it is exciting to see Bemis really wrestle with himself again. Over the past decade, Say Anything slowly lost their lyrical might; their words still cut, but the blade was dull. By contrast, Oliver Appropriate is almost uncomfortably rich with verbose specificity, from the Paul Walker movies Oliver half-watches with a girl to the excuses he makes for his shitty behavior post-hookup: “Bowie’s my excuse so I can brag of how I tried, when all I want to do is send you off and get you high,” he sings on “Send You Off.” It’s hackneyed at times (lines about rock stars who “ramble about Trump over Stellas and headline Coachella” are dusty disses), but the record showcases the dark humor and narrative knack that set the band apart on ...Is a Real Boy.

It’s refreshing to hear guitar on a Say Anything album after half a decade of the token failed experiments of latter-day emo (a “hip hop” record, an attempt at piano-driven ballads). The acoustic guitar, recorded so closely that you can hear the textured abrasion of fingertips against nylon, sounds romantic and nostalgic next to Bemis’ shredded whine on songs like “Daze.” Say Anything’s contemporaries from the mid-2000s are remembered as a series of slick pop-punk bands mixed into oblivion. But Oliver Appropriate, with its clap-along drumming patterns and stripped-back production, sounds like an elder statesman of emo gathering his fellow washed up frontmen around a campfire for a story or two. It’s a fitting ending for a band that always stood a step or two outside the scene, pointing and laughing.

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