If you don’t know AJR, it’s time to study up. Adam, Jack, and Ryan are a trio of brothers who quite literally make and produce their own music in the living room of their New York City apartment. Over the past two years, they have quickly become one of my favorite bands for a number of reasons I probably couldn’t count on both hands. Their last album, The Click, pretty much broke them into the mainstream and for good reason. The concept album tells a clear story with the underlying theme being, “Should I go for more clicks this year, or should I follow the click in my ear?” AJR was able to interweave this contemporary message with the constant click of a metronome that makes an appearance throughout a lot of the songs. It’s genius really. And in case you wanted more proof of my undying love for this album, my graduation cap is a recreation of the concept art with the words “follow the click” in the center. Slightly obsessive? Just a tad.
With this album, they did two rounds of touring and managed to sell out both. During that time, they also debuted a new single called “Burn The House Down,” collaborated with Steve Aoki and Lil Yachty on a track called “Pretender,” and released The Click: Deluxe Edition. I should probably mention that Adam was simultaneously studying to get a PhD while Ryan and Jack enrolled in college part-time this past fall. Their last tour finished in December, and in January, they teased a new album. What I need to know is simply HOW? I’m genuinely convinced none of them sleep. Whatever the case may be, their new album Neotheater is finally here, and let’s just say it’s hard to put into words how amazing it is.
Lyrically, AJR always take risks, and it pays off big time. Somebody on Twitter said that the band identifies concepts/emotions that people find difficult to put into words and then write songs about them. That person nailed it. Throughout this album, AJR have songs that span the struggles of wanting to move out but not wanting to grow up yet, the societal pressure young adults face today, coming to terms with failed relationships, and even sponsorships. Yep, you read that correctly. And that doesn’t even begin to skim the surface of the ideas that AJR successfully tackle.
Soundwise, AJR continue to evolve but always remain true to the idea that their music will be complex and involve a million instruments. They are big into experimentation, especially because they produce the songs themselves. For The Click, they started a series on their YouTube channel showing fans how they made all of their songs, starting with the very first beat. The same manipulation of instruments and in turn, creation of strange new sounds is definitely present in Neotheater. In a recent interview, they were asked what their sonic influences are. Ryan explained that they became obsessed with “Israeli production” which “sounds like five different songs in one.” He also said they fell in love with “1930’s movie choirs.” Let me be the first to tell you that both of those statements are true. A lot of their songs build then fall, then turn into something else entirely. It’s so fascinating to listen to, and they execute their music in a way that flows seamlessly, rather than it being just a bunch of instruments playing at the same time. Also, I had no idea what to expect with “1930’s music choir,” but I was not disappointed. It elevates the album in the oddest yet best way possible. If you listen, you’ll definitely hear what I’m talking about.
The name Neotheater is also just a bizarre but alluring title. “Neo” means new, so I think it’s supposed to be a fancy way of saying “new theater.” This makes sense to me because a lot of these songs sound very Broadway musical-esque with an obvious updated twist. The way Twenty One Pilots set out to create an almost new world with their latest record Trench is also what AJR has successfully done. When listening to the album, it feels so immersive that it’s easy to forget where you are or what you’re doing. There are so many moving parts that it takes a decent amount of attention to really pick up on everything the album has to offer. It really does feel like you’re in another world inside your head. On Twitter, AJR suggested that fans listen to the album chronologically and after doing so, it makes perfect sense. The songs on their own are all fantastic, but listening to them out of order won’t tell the story they intended to.
Now that I’ve gotten all of that out of my system, let’s go track by track, shall we? “Next Up Forever,” is easily one of my favorite songs. It starts off with that 1930’s harmonizing choir sound which instantly makes me think I’m watching a movie. It’s also just interesting that the song starts off with vocals that aren’t even AJR’s. It’s an initial surprise that at least shocked me but piqued my interest at the same time. From there, some intense drums build up the drama until the beat drops into a full-on sounding orchestra. Then, the instruments cut straight to Jack’s voice. It is such a powerful introduction, and I literally get the chills every time.
Let’s also talk about some of the lyrics in this song because they are raw and emotional. “I wanna be next up forever, find a way to never hit my peak.” To me, that’s one of those brutally honest lines that everybody feels but doesn’t know how to vocalize. They killed it though because that’s spot on. It also just reminds me of underdog stories and that overwhelming desire to make something out of nothing. “This is my imagination, this is how it looks and sounds.” I find that line so inspiring because if this song is really a metaphor for one’s imagination, that’s ridiculously beautiful. Also, same, because there’s always 574 things going on in my mind at once. The lyric that hit WAY too close to home for me was, “I’m kinda scared of graduation, ‘cause who am I when this is done?” As somebody who is graduating college in less than a month, this is the exact way I feel. What am I doing next? What’s going to change? Can I function as an adult? They managed to encapsulate so many different emotions into a single line. And I think the same thing goes for the song as a whole. The dramatic ups and downs in the sound reflect the self-aware lyrics, and the combination of both make for such an impactful start to an album.
“Birthday Party” is the second track and also the second single released off this album. The opening sounds like a darker version of a Disney song. I’m not even sure what instrument makes the signature up and down noise throughout, but it is for sure unique. The interesting collaboration of sounds matches the interesting meaning of the song. The lyrics are sung from the perspective of a newborn baby who sees the world in an innocent light. It is ridiculously timely, and the lyrics are even more ironic judging by the current political crisis in the United States. AJR gets their point across with lines like “I bet my country’s nice to immigrants,” and “I bet I’ll see a female president.” The chorus is also extremely catchy. Jack sings it in this really odd way where his voice goes up and down in tune with the music. Whatever the science is behind that, it definitely ends up stuck in my head.
“100 Bad Days” was the first single off the album and again, I think AJR took notes from Twenty One Pilots. When Trench was being teased, Twenty One Pilots dropped “Jumpsuit” as their first single. This song sounded most like their previous album Blurryface, and I think it was a way to ease fans into the new era without overwhelming them with something drastically different. In this case, “100 Bad Days” seems most similar to The Click, so I think it was smart for them to release this song first. It’s also about taking something negative and turning it into a positive, so it’s obviously uplifting. I mean how could you not feel better after hearing “Maybe a hundred bad days make a hundred good stories”? The chorus and direct middle part of this song are where the energy really comes along. The trumpet plays a vital role in both. I feel like AJR always know just where to put trumpet and violin for some reason, and I’m not complaining.
“Don’t Throw Out My Legos” starts off with the strangest yet satisfying mish-mosh of sounds. It sounds like something directly out of a cartoon. AJR are really good at writing songs that feel like anthems, and this one is no exception. Like the first song, there is a rawness to the lyrics. It’s about growing up but not wanting to move on completely. The song also seems to have an undertone of self-doubt, especially in the lyrics “What if I can’t let go, what if I come back home?” The pounding of the drums closer to the end really solidifies the intensity of the song. I love the emotional honesty and even the way Jack and Ryan’s vocals get heavier throughout. This is another extremely relatable song, especially for those in their twenties trying to figure out their lives, aka me.
“Break My Face” starts off with a really catchy bass riff. Then, what sounds like a distorted and pitched up trumpet repeats the same riff. For me, the weird distorted sound and repeated shout of “okay” make the song for me. I also really love the lyrics in the first verse. The bizarre visual of a person’s tongue literally falling out of their mouth and onto the ground is just a writer’s dream. However, my absolute favorite line from this song is “What doesn’t kill you makes you ugly.” That’s just such a fascinating statement. Now, here comes the trippy part. At one point, Jack sings “and everything is going great” which is a repeated lyric from “Birthday Party.” I noticed this the first time I listened to the album, and when it initially droppe,d AJR fans were connecting lyrics, melodies, and a bunch of other things back to other songs on the album. It was a fun day on Twitter scrolling to see what people found, and I think we can all agree it showed how everything ties in together.
“Turning Out Pt. ii” is THAT song. First of all, AJR swapped out Jack’s vocals for Ryan’s which I’m quite happy about. I have nothing wrong with Jack’s voice, but Ryan’s vocals are just as beautiful, and I really enjoyed hearing his voice more on The Click. Second, this might be one of the most powerful songs off the entire album if not out of AJR’s entire library. The background music starts off with just keyboard, and the most beautiful violin comes in near the middle of the song. It really takes the emotions to the next level along with Ryan’s passionate vocals. Listening to the lyrics of this song, it’s hard not to cry. “I think I probably wasn’t in love with you, I think I probably loved the idea of you.” That’s something extremely hard to admit much less actually sing about. The final verse gets even more complex when Ryan sings, “This is gonna break your heart. I’m so sorry, yeah, I know. This is gonna break your heart. Is this all that life’s about? Trying to love how you turn out? I don’t love it much at all.” Chills. The song is so much more about a failing relationship. It’s equal parts hurt, growing up, loss, and learning how to accept oneself while also moving on. Ryan repeats the aforementioned lyrics once more ending the final word an octave higher. This little detail makes the song feel like a Broadway musical while also demonstrating just how beautiful of a voice Ryan has. All the feels.
“The Entertainment’s Here” is one of those upbeat sounding songs with much deeper lyrics than the first listen might reveal. I think the message is really about society and the fact that people feel the need to be entertained 24/7. Especially with the prevalence of smartphones and social media, the addiction to mindless scrolling has become a serious issue. In the pre-chorus, Jack even sings, “I’ve been thinking that too much thinking can start me sinking down.” Besides the prevalent message, the sound is very fun and well, entertaining. The uplifting trumpet, school bell sound, and pitched “yup yup yups” add such a unique flare. Definitely could be mistaken for a swanky musical number.
Personally, I think “Karma” is one of the songs that embodies AJR’s style as a whole. It’s fast-paced, upbeat, and has so many different sonic elements involved. I feel like there are a million moving parts so that every time you listen, you’ll hear a new, quirky sound. Between the harmonizing chorus, steady but intense drum beat, weird electronic vocals, and really quick violin that sounds straight out of an orchestra, you’ve only made it to second 37 of the entire song. The mini instrumental breaks in between chorus and verse are something to be noted as well because that’s when AJR uses their sample machine to really play around with different sounds all at once. Lyrically, this song tackles the idea of good karma and if “being good” will actually be rewarded. It’s definitely an interesting concept. I think the last verse is where the lyrics prove to be the deepest. “But what if sad thoughts come, and I can’t stop it?” (AJR really needs to get out of my brain sometimes.) My absolute favorite part of the song though is when Jack starts singing “ah,” and the music builds around him. It eventually goes into what sounds like a full on orchestra and slows back down into the final verse. It’s so hard to explain the emotional value without actually hearing it for yourself. If you want to get a taste of the full album by only listening to one song, I think this is the best choice.
The first time I heard “Beats” I could not believe my ears. AJR really wrote a song about sponsorships, and it’s both hysterical and surprisingly well-done. The actual beat of the song is catchy with noises that sound like they came straight out of a mechanic’s shop. I don’t know who the girl in the song is, but her vocals, along with Jack and Ryan’s mesh well together. The lyrics are funny yet serious at the same time which is something that AJR excels at. I love how Jack pretty much starts out with, “Now our song plays in the produce aisle.” That’s such a funny detail that gives this song a little personal touch. Of course, the chorus preaches the benefits of accepting a sponsorship, in this case from Beats by Dre. The twist comes in the final verse where the song slows down and Jack sings, “And every star that I used to mock was probably paid, am I the same?” The moral factor about sponsorships comes into play, and the very abrupt ending lets the listener hover on that idea for a minute.
“Wow, I’m Not Crazy” is for anybody who’s had a “You do that too?” moment with one of their friends. It’s basically about bonding over random things that seem odd or that you wouldn’t think somebody else would do. Lyrically, it’s pretty simplistic, but it’s such a feel-good song that I don’t mind that at all. Soundwise, they included those “yup yup yups” from “The Entertainment’s Here,” which I really love yet again. I also like that the chorus sounds like it’s sung by a group of people rather than just Jack. It helps to push that motif of friendship forward while also just making it fun to sing along to. There’s also a brief pitched up vocal that I love a lot at the end of the chorus. The middle of the song is again where the intensity changes. They definitely used that sample machine to their advantage while interweaving vocals in the background at the same time. I feel like this could easily be a go-to summer song for me. *Adds to playlist*
“Dear Winter” was the final single released, and I have to give AJR a lot of credit for it. Not only is it an extremely touching song about a father singing to his unborn son or daughter, but they took all of the special effects out of it and let the lyrics speak for themselves. The entirety of it is just Jack’s vocals and a single guitar. It’s so great to see AJR master their unique sound and then shatter people’s expectations by putting out something like this. I’m not going to even try to name all the lyrics that touch me because that would quite literally be more than half of the song. I would, however, love to see Ryan sing this song at some point especially since he did write it.
The finale, also known as “Can’t Wait to See What You Do Next,” is similar yet completely different from the very first song. It starts off with the harmonizing choir but doesn’t have that intense of a drop into the actual first verse. However, the music is still amazing along with the lyrics. I think this song is about societal pressures and how everybody feels the need to do something amazing with their life. Maybe it’s because of my age and the fact that AJR is a younger band, but I feel like they targeted this song at younger adults because they’re just starting to figure out their lives. The repeated lines “We can’t wait to see what you do next,” come from a chorus of adults which again pushes forward that pressure to be great. However, I still think this song is also equal parts uplifting. The final verse relieves some stress when Jack sings, “Just don’t forget about me when you get out of college. If it’s my final album and if I am forgotten, I hope I made you smile. That’s all I ever wanted.” To me, that seems positive since they managed to achieve that. The song also ends on a literal high note with the orchestral instruments building to a climax. The album plays out the same way it began: like a movie. Just like Trench, it feels like there’s a snap back to reality, and you can choose to reemerge into the real world or be like me and stay in the world of Neotheater by keeping the album on repeat for hours.
Sheesh, I know that was a lot. I should have told you to grab a snack or something. But when AJR put a whole lot of time and effort into an album, it’s worth the overanalyzing. If you couldn’t tell already, I love this album with my whole heart. I love the fact that this band went to college and deliberately observed people of this generation and then wrote music about them. It really does feel like the perfect album for college students or just those trying to grow up. It’s contemporary, dramatic, emotional, relatable, and most importantly, oddly original. It’s everything I expected and nothing I expected at all. If you’re a fan of AJR, you don’t want to miss out. If you’ve never listened to AJR before, now is your chance to discover how talented of a band they are.