The hype surrounding a new Say Anything record has become more hopeful trepidation over the years, and it’s understandable as to why. When the second record you release is likely to always be the high point of your career those that follow seem to fall short in comparison. …Is A Real Boy was, and still is, incredible, and In Defense Of The Genre was a solid follow-up, but from here things went gradually downhill with the bands next two records. Upon release latest effort Anarchy, My Dear was met with mixed reviews, including a scathing one from SputnikMusic, a sign that perhaps it was time for a change. Say Anything have definitely changed, and their new album sees them change for the better. Hebrews is a record devoid of electric guitar, instead replacing them with orchestral string arrangements and keys, making all the difference here. It’s a weird record, as Say Anything records always are, but it sounds more like a return to the bands roots more than a new direction entirely.
If Anarchy, My Dear was an attempt at a more traditional punk rock record then Hebrews is difficult to categorise, a welcome return to the self-loathing, schizophrenic nature of the bands earlier, and better work. It’s very much along the lines of Say Anything’s In Defense of the Genre, although Say Anything now feels more like ‘Max Bemis and Friends’, with Bemis being the only constant. Hebrews is the first record not featuring Coby Linder, and in his place are a number of contributing drummers, primarily Reed Murray (formerly of Tallhart). Garron DuPree performs bass, and the record also features sixteen guest vocalists – another obvious similarity to IDOTG. As a result Hebrews is a record which is constantly shifting, always surprising, and with a focus on orchestrals it’s a very interesting and unique one, audacious and often absurd. It’s a return to form for Bemis in almost every regard, and he really delivers here. Hebrews is unabashedly honest, focusing in depth on Bemis’ personal life – his wife, his family, his Jewish upbringing (hence the title and artwork), and although you sometimes get the sense he’s trying too hard lyrically, as is the case on My Greatest Fear Is Splendid, Hebrews is highly compelling, another plunge into the innermost musings of one of music’s most enigmatic characters. This is one of the most pleasing things about it for fans like myself; Hebrews really feels like a Say Anything record above all else, and that’s pretty great news, especially for those who were perhaps starting to lose interest. Seventh tracks Push is excellent, jaunty in the way that …Is A Real Boy often was as Bemis yells and repeats the title over and over again towards the end after a building, writhing track that features some raw vocals and some twisting instrumentation. It’s off-kilter in nature, but done in a way that makes it infectious as opposed to off-putting as back and forth shouts of ’Push!´ ring out between Bemis and Aaron Weiss (of mewithoutyou), who gives one of the most noteworthy guest performances during a song which sees Bemis questions his fatherly capabilities with trademark Bemis wit. Judas Decapitation is genius, devilishly smart as he lyrically lashes out at people who’ve criticised his maturation in the past, joining them, singing “I hate that dude now he’s married / He’s got a baby on the way, poor Sherri / That’s not apropos / He’s not the wrench we know” as if starting a family with the woman you love is a bad thing. I’ll admit that I did think Max’s marriage and family had negatively affected Anarchy, My Dear but consider me put in my place as he caps off an excellent second verse with the lines “Be 19 with a joint in hand / Never change the band / Never be a …real man”, making the song a bit of a fuck-you to people who wanted him to play music for them more than for himself.
Lyrically Hebrews is a troubled record, but musically it also has its issues, flawed. Although a unique addition, the use of strings as opposed to guitars doesn’t always work, with perhaps too much going on at one time. Six Six Six sounds clumsy albeit quirky, and the use of keys which sound like guitars on Boyd, amongst other tracks, seems to undermine the entire principle and raises questions as to whether Hebrews would’ve benefited from Say Anything’s usual guitars, especially given how it seems like a throwback to past works. Aside from a few muddled moments Hebrews is brilliantly constructed instrumentally, and it’s a testament to Bemis’ songwriting capabilities, which constantly shine through. The string arrangements are very good for the most part, superbly executed, and each of the drummers who feature does a commendable job. The chorus to A Look is vibrant and catchy, poppy to an extent, and one of the records best, whilst John McClane is more stripped back as Bemis delivers some traditionally testing lyrics, with the track perking up around him huddled in the corner as backing vocals croon before a brief harp solo and forty seconds of solid gang vocals from Bemis, Chris Conley (Saves The Day) and Matt Pryor (The Get Up Kids). The numerous other guest vocal spots on Hebrews are hit and miss, and most of the time they don’t last long enough to really make a mark. These are Bemis’ songs, and he steals the show throughout as he should, but he seems reluctant to share the stage despite inviting so many other vocalists into the fold. He often mentions himself as Satan, and there is some sin in limiting Keith Buckley of Every Time I Die to a ghostly, echoing and fairly pointless part on the weaker My Greatest Fear Is Splendid, and the same could be said about Brian Sella on the lacklustre title track. Bob Nanna gets a fairly pointless ten seconds on A Look, likewise with Jon Simmons on Six Six Six, who gets three words and twenty seconds at its death. Tom DeLonge is drowned out almost entirely on the closer, and a lot of these guest features sound like afterthoughts, brought in in an attempt to spice things up. The only guest vocalists who really add to their songs are Aaron Weiss, Jeremy Bolm and Sherri DuPree Bemis, all of whom feature in the darker second half of Hebrews. The juxtaposing styles of the latter two on Lost My Touch is brilliant as Bolm shouts over a lonely piano with Sherri’s singsong delivery overlapping. Similarly to on last year’s Two Of A Crime the times when Sherri and Max feature together are magic, most notably on highlight The Shape Of Love To Come. This track sounds too ‘heavy’ to have featured on Perma’s debut but fits well here as Bemis begins the song lost and lonely and ends it love-struck and hopelessly romantic alongside some sparkling, sweet orchestrals which really benefit the track. At the longest entry it’s also much more adventurous in its songwriting, rising and falling gracefully, even featuring a minute or so of building spoken word from Sherri before the song returns with an emphatic, triumphant peak. Like the lyric in this song Sherri is the spark to Max’s storm (and vice versa), and the chemistry the two share is electric, channelled elsewhere on the furious Boyd which follows, one of the heaviest song Say Anything have released, standing out. Kall Me Kubrick is another highlight, jumping straight in with some of the more dynamic, punchy orchestrals, bouncing along as Bemis covers his upbringing and again alludes to himself being Satan as he really pushes his vocals, aggressive and angsty. The bridge does let the track down; it’s very weird, perhaps over exaggerated, although people do love Say Anything for exactly that reason. Hebrews ends with another strange choice, although this one is harder to justify as Nibble Nibble starts with the lines ‘The man who touched me / He cornered me beneath the trees… / He reached inside me to pluck the cherry from my heart’. Comparing it to the likes of Admit It!, Ahhh… Men and The Stephen Hawking it falls way short even though it improves significantly once it kicks in.
During Judas Decapitation and Lost My Touch Bemis addresses his critics and fans, inviting them to take his place on the latter, and it’s likely that Hebrews won’t completely silence the negative comments from either. It’s similarities to earlier records is its main strength, with the records odd orchestral nature closely following behind. Personally speaking it’s my favourite Say Anything record since In Defense Of The Genre, just edging out Say Anything, and it’s great to hear Max Bemis as the Max Bemis I know and love again. He’s older but still jaded, and he still writes songs like very few others can, and although it still sounds slightly lost at times Hebrews is Say Anything definitely back on the right track.
Rating – 7/10
Listen to: Judas Decapitation / Kall Me Kubrick / The Shape Of Love To Come