“The world’s smallest violin / Really needs an audience / So if I don’t find somebody soon / I’ll blow into smithereens,” AJR sings as a cry for attention. Luring an audience in with top-notch production, Adam, Jack and Ryan Met expend every moment of their latest 46-minute project assuring themselves their first-world problems are heard loud and clear.
The New York multi-instrumentalist pop trio AJR returned with their fourth full-length album, “OK ORCHESTRA.” Breaking a 23-month hiatus since the 2019 release of “Neotheatre” on March 26, the brothers find their stride with electronic, doo-wop and hip hop-influenced production fashions and lyrics that border on pathetic and playful.
The 13-track project’s introduction, “OK Overture,” flexes production expertise with a homogenized conglomerate of the upcoming 12 tracks, analogous to a movie trailer.
The track continues the trio’s traditional curtain-raising fashion for a fourth time with instrumental segues and appropriately placed lyrical snippets from the album. The track forecasts high-caliber DJing and production skills accompanied by unfortunate lyrical mediocracy.
“Bummerland” melodramatically recalls the canceled plans and heartbreaks of summer 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic as a fictional dystopia.
Despite a cringey delivery on verses discussing DIY haircuts and drinking at home, the chorus looks forward to brighter days with energizing trumpets and powerful drums. The dichotomy between a mournful narrative and a parading instrumental invites a refreshing perspective on both the pandemic and overall difficult times.
Wince-worthy lyrics persist throughout the tracklist with a magnitude that no productive fireworks may salvage. “Adventure is Out There” is an alternative rock cut as generic as the bumper stickers labeled with the track’s title.
Over a pattering drumline and an uninspired guitar accompaniment, the trio sings about living vicariously through their lost socks while they suffer through another “do nothing day.”
“I keep losing my socks / Where the hell do they go,” they sing. “I bet they’re finally free / Floating somewhere in the sea.”
The lyrical nightmare continues on “My Play.” A mundane drum kick and clap pattern, along with children’s vocals drowned out in synthesized reverberation, creates an elementary track that serves best as ambiance for a Disney film. Instead, the trio fills the space with a chorus seemingly written by a fifth-grader.
“I worked really, really, really, really hard / Let me show you my play,” the group sings. “And I don’t wanna do it twice / ‘Cause it’s not the same.”
Once the listener escapes the thick of the poor performance woods — venturing through misses such as “Joe,” “The Trick” and “Humpty Dumpty” — the back-half of the tracklist brings forth a clearing of enjoyable hits.
The song celebrates the small victories, surpassing low-bar goals and stoically accepting one’s mental health. The chorus crescendos with wailing trumpets, a grooving piano progression and hip hop-derived drums to form an anthem fitting in a climate of mixed emotions.
AJR runs with this winning formula into “Ordinaryish People” as distorted trumpets, an abundance of shakers and clappers and a dynamic set of drum patterns formulate another high moment for the project.
The second half of the track leans into the robotic “OK ORCHESTRA” concept of the album — presumably a nod to Radiohead’s “OK Computer.” After the final chorus, an auto-generated voice orchestrates the track through a spasmodic instrumental breakdown before concluding the track abruptly.
Lyrically, the track scores well above its preceding tracks as it touches on the subjectivity of social norms, disassociating from “ordinary people” and finding one’s own sense of identity.
“Your pretty friends they call you ugly / Your ugly friends they call you vain,” they sing. “No, you’re not stupid, you’re just special / Well that’s what all your smart friends say / I guess the last time you had any fun / Was way back when you weren’t anyone.”
The passionate, loud New York trio finds clarity and grace in their concluding remark “Christmas in June.” A jazz flute opens a subtle, breezy instrumental with gorgeous vocals. Similar to many artists this past year of quarantine, the band finds time to reflect on the demanding lifestyle of touring and the difficulty of striking a balance between work and family.
“Oh my God / How lucky am I to have two things I love?” they sing. “Makes it that much easier to fuck it up / In casе I miss it, can we do Christmas in June?”
One last time, AJR balances melancholy pessimism with hopefulness in their storytelling, and the lightheartedness of the outro brings thoughts of warmth and reunion for the future.
“OK ORCHESTRA” is available now on Apple Music and Spotify.