Ladies and gentleman, the weird and wonderful Max Bemis. His seventh Say Anything record came out of nowhere, a surprise made available to stream during the dead of night, but this Beyonce-esque unveiling proves to be perhaps the least surprising thing about I Don’t Think It Is.
I Don’t Think It Is feels like one of those records you stumble across on Bandcamp at 4am in, noticing that the only Norwegian you follow has bought it, they’re the only buyer. You’re immediately drawn to bizarre artwork which somehow forces you to explore further, even against your better judgement. On investigating, you find a record tucked away from the popular pages, self-released and tagged with labels like ‘avant-garde’, ‘beards’, ‘fruit loops’ and ‘white dudes shouting’ – naturally you’re curious as to how it sounds in light of these terms. It’s low-fi (of course it is), but it’s also pretty damn interesting, and you blow the $1 asking fee because then you can be the second person to pick it up, and it makes your collection look cooler than those early Dikembe demos do.
By this point, there are a few things I’ve come to expect from a Say Anything record, and the chief expectation is that it won’t sound like your average alternative release. I Don’t Think It Is is not a normal record, but it is a Say Anything record – so it shouldn’t be. At this point Say Anything is less the band ‘Say Anything’ and more of a Max Bemis solo project featuring friends and family, and Bemis has gradually be given fuller control over the moniker as the years have passed. The featuring friends on this record include Christian Holden (The Hotelier), Paul Hinojos (At The Drive In) and Dylan Mattheisen of Tiny Moving Parts, amongst others including wife Sherri DuPree Bemis, who featured heavily on last output Hebrews. The biggest outside influence on I Don’t Think It Is however is drummer Darren King of MuteMath, who lends an understated, unique styling to the record, also contributing with some fuzzy electronic effects. Despite these additions Bemis is forever the focal point, and this time around you sense that he has complete and total control, full freedom, and the result is a record which only Max Bemis could make – this is its main strength. Bemis has forever been the centre which cannot hold (to borrow from W.B Yeats), and he’s rarely made use of it as well as he does this time around. Across twelve eclectic tracks we hear him wrestle creatively with himself, with his reputation, and with anything he feels like turning his tongue to. Is he over the top? Absolutely. Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not.
Bemis, regardless of the way he’s saying it, or how clear the message is, always has something interesting to say, and that hasn’t really changed over the years. His lyrical thought is progressive and somewhat perplexing, and his penchant for quickfire rhymes and existential questioning is as strong as ever. Sure, you get songs such as Princess where he perhaps tries too hard (Would you spit in Little Lucy’s face because she watches the movie Frozen? And she wants to be a princess? Even though Disney employs nearly genocidal business practices?’), but he’s still as engaging a frontman as ever, still waiting to ‘lose his touch’ – to reference Hebrews. I Don’t Think It Is is a series of long, complex thought processes, Bemis spewing and ranting, raving like a lunatic across spoken word shoutings and melodic musings. He references Kanye West at one point, and then comes across like him later during the mystical Goshua, asking ‘You think I live for attention? God, look what I do for a pension!’ Add to that the fact that the two met and shared studio time and I Don’t Think It Is becomes far stranger than it already is. It’s easy to view Bemis as the West of his field, some fifteen years after releasing his debut LP, a perplexing and polarising figure hell-bent on simply doing things his own way. I Don’t Think It Is may well be Bemis’ My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, at least in terms of ambition if not end-product.
I Don’t Think It Is is an intense, rambling record, manic and melodramatic, a fuzzy mess of shouted self-capitulations and weird instrumentals, and it’s one that West would very likely applaud for its delivery. It’s trademark Bemis without necessarily sounding like trademark Bemis, the completely uninhibited nature of the release lending him free reign to make whatever he wants. Early songs 17 Coked Up And Speeding and So Numb find him at his best, going through the motions, and the former feels like a throwback of sorts to an earlier time, a nostalgia trip in small measure. The latter sees Bemis throw shade, yelling ‘Spread the news, social cues, jargon you’re clued into / And you’re so numb / No opinions here, no opinions here,’ his ranting finding genuine purpose and transcending mere ranting. Fifth track Goshua serves as a low-fi love letter to the records inspiration, Max’s friend Josh, a spoken word emphasis over space soundscapes as Bemis pens clever lines, before Jiminy returns to a more familiar feel, perhaps the ‘safest’ track on the record. I Don’t Think It Is ends at its weirdest with Attaboy!, a seven minute track opening with the line ‘Sometimes I have problems relating to Batman’ before expanding on this point, crashing and stomping electronics adding jaunt to a jarring chorus. It’s experimental and engaging, if not very odd, finishing with frantic guitars from Dylan of Tiny Parts, and painful wails from Joshua Adam Sultan. It feels like an album closer, but isn’t, Varicose Visage seeing things out in fascinating fashion with gritty, black instrumentals underlining Bemis’ final moments of rage, ending with a decisive mic-drop moment as he shouts ‘Wasting careers trying to earn respect / I’d rather be the only bad active left / Beat the dead horse ’til it gets angry / its death throes gonna feed me family, done!’ Not a bad closing statement.
There’s plenty to like about I Don’t Think It Is, but the extent to which they’re enjoyed is often hindered by the mix, the production, which proved detrimental to my experience with the record, at least initially. It would be odd of me to criticize Will Yip as a producer considering that he mixed my favourite record if 2015, mewithoutYou’s Pale Horses. He did an excellent job there, and he probably did a pretty solid job here, but the work he did was most likely in line with Bemis’ view of how the record should sound. I Don’t Think It Is sounds too garage for its own good – the mix is washed out and distant, muting the bigger moments and stifling Bemis’ vocals, with instrumentals often sounding lacklustre even if they don’t necessarily feel lacklustre. It was the element which proved most divisive listening to the record, and even with a £500 pair of headphones the problem persisted. There are some solid moments, the cool cruise of Wire Mom and the electronic appeal of Varicose Visage, but elsewhere things sound notably off, and it’s easy to think that tracks like Attaboy! would be improved with Anarchy, My Dear production ideals. In a way this roughness does complement the records raw nature, but from an audiophiles perspective it detracts rather than adds, and will certainly prove a turn-off for many listeners. It took several listens for me to get used to it, but once I had the release did grow on me. The thing is, not everyone will permit I Don’t Think It Is this settling period.
Production hang-ups aside, I Don’t Think It Is is the weirdest, wildest Say Anything record since In Defence Of The Genre, with each song surprising in its own distinct way. Granted, it doesn’t always sound great, Bemis’ vocals grating and instrumentals muted, but the record is one which does prove rewarding, even if you have to dig deep to find something to enjoy. When I reviewed Hebrews a few years back I talked a lot, too much, about Say Anything’s discography, and I haven’t really done so this time around. Maybe it’s because Bemis appeals to fans of earlier works by making this record the way he has, but maybe I’ve also turned a corner, just as Max seems to have done. By doing things they way he wants to on I Don’t Think It Is he’s managed to make the Say Anything record I didn’t even know I wanted, but am glad to have anyway. Sure, it won’t be for everyone, but I’m alright with it.
Rating – 7/10
Listen to: 17 Coked Up And Speeding / The Brett Easton School Of Witchcraft and Wizardry / Attaboy!