Mere seconds into “Worker Bee”, the first track off their fourth album My Dinosaur Life, Minnesota pop-punk band Motion City Soundtrack cheer, “I’m through with the old school, so let’s commence the winning.” What follows is anything but winning, but it’s way more interesting than that could ever be.
Despite their claims of being done with the past, this album is a hark back to 2005’s Commit This to Memory, where the band’s once again struggling with that quasi-adolescent, burgeoning adult lot in life. Last time around, a track like “Antonia” was as nerd-friendly as it got. Now, most songs are littered with geek observations and turn of phrases, like the strummy acoustic pop gem “Stand Too Close” and the line “When I’ve gone off the wall like Busta Rhymes”. “Pulp Fiction” might be the most guilty track; with a chorus comparing a break-up to a bad horror movie (where the killings are “gorgeous”), they’ve unabashedly returned to a very basic outlook and toolkit of metaphors and analysis.
But some songs on the album try to expand the band’s worldview. “Her Words Destroyed My Planet” is a lot of noise, with big guitars and even some distorted whistling. With lines like, “I sold my Xbox to Jimmy down the street/Hell, I even quit smoking weed” and “If we’d only stayed together, I might not have fallen apart”, they’re making an attempt to grow up without giving into their neurosis. “@!#?@!” is much angrier than a lot of stuff in their catalog, like some nerdy ’70s rock version of “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”, complete with funked out bassline and the line “Leave me and my sensitive homeboys alone”.
This album is also less about their trademark keyboard-driven geek fury. Even in “Pulp Fiction”, there’s an underlining rumble of noise to said nerd rock. And even though the album is overall matching their same level of energy, there’s the layer of real angst and disappointment right under the surface. Even if they’re going for that same energy, “Disappear” accomplishes that without resorting to the same cheap thrill of a wave of cheery keys. “The Weakends” plays with ambient noises and effects, something the world of pop-punk isn’t known for. They also seem to channel a hard, more mainline rock sound without giving up any of their own gusto. “Skin and Bones” is their metaphysical look at the human experience, with the line “What if we’re all just broken shells with someone else’s thoughts?” It’s clearly someone dealing with the thought of growing up by turning to the thing they’ve always known was right: their sheltered, immature existence.
“Delirium” is akin to their big hit “Everything’s Alright”. Rather than the manic OCD tendencies being a badge of honor, they’ve created a real sense that things are beyond quips and the character in their whole story of overcoming his issues has reached the end of his rope. But not ones to do without catchiness, the song’s driving bassline is light and springy, a danceable bit of fury to make the medicine go down. They’re moving away from their traditional musical patterns because they’re more ready to evoke a particular emotional response rather than being wordsmiths every time.
MCS have always been conventional and more or less safe, but they’ve taken tiny, calculated risks that have paid off and have made an album that strives for something grander. And as they continue in “Worker Bee”, “I’ve been a good worker bee, I deserve a gold star”. And how.
My Dinosaur Life