Simple Plan’s fifth studio album, Taking One For the Team, begins with a preemptive attack. Singing over the same palm-muted guitars that have defined the band’s sound since 2002’s No Pads, No Helmets … Just Balls, frontman Pierre Bouvier addresses the legions of hipsters and cynics who are likely to dismiss Simple Plan based on principle alone. “I’m doing things exactly like I want to,” Bouvier declares, presumably with his chin up and his shoulders squared in a fighting stance. “What part of that don’t you understand?”
To be fair, there’s actually quite a lot about the French Canadian band that defies easy understanding. On the most basic level, it’s kind of astounding that they still exist in the first place, and with the same five members they started with 17 years ago. The pop punk graveyard is an especially well-populated one, with platinum records serving as tombstones for the likes of Sum 41, Good Charlotte, My Chemical Romance, and countless others. The Age of Irony hasn’t been especially kind to pop punk’s earnest sentimentalism, and most of Simple Plan’s former contemporaries had the grace or the foresight to go gentle into that good night.
So, yes, Simple Plan deserves credit for sticking it out this long. The same guys who penned “I’m Just a Kid” are now in their mid-30s and still hanging at the rock club like a slightly less creepy version of Dazed and Confused’s David Wooderson. Things which do not shift and adapt will die out quickly, and Simple Plan has demonstrated an uncanny talent for charting pop music’s evolution and responding in kind. Nowhere is this talent more pronounced than on Taking One For the Team, an album that would probably be labeled as the band’s “sell-out” moment if they weren’t such a guilty pleasure to begin with. Pop punk is merely one of several genres the band experiments with here in a bald-faced attempt to push their sound in new directions.
Ironically, the best of these experiments are the ones that don’t stray far from the band’s roots, and even these stumble as often as they soar. The press materials use words like “brutal” and “furious” to describe tracks like “I Refuse”, a nominally hardcore anthem that most resembles a neutered version of Rise Against. Simple Plan may be about as edgy as a bowling ball, but they can at least approximate the energy of hardcore and channel it into hook-filled singalongs like “I Refuse” and “Nostalgic”. In doing so, they succeed in producing a real commodity that’s worth something on the open market of FM radio: heavy music for people who don’t like heavy music.
Taking One For the Team starts to become problematic when it overreaches for inspiration. Such is the case on “Singing In the Rain”, a misguided and nigh disrespectful appropriation of reggae that sounds like Sublime relocated deep into the suburbs. Simple Plan probably didn’t mean any harm with this slight and pandering ditty, but listen to Bouvier stretch his voice into a slight Jamaican accent and try not to cringe. It’s one thing to expand your sound and another to shamelessly co-opt a tradition you know next to nothing about, and Simple Plan find themselves on the wrong side of that line here.
A less offensive but equally unsuccessful experiment can be found in the album’s lead single, “I Don’t Wanna Go To Bed”. This song takes a funky approach to pop that’s aided by none other than Nelly, who has fallen so far from his Country Grammar heights that he seems to be grasping at any straw available. Simple Plan are more than happy to give him that straw, but it comes in the form of a generic pop song that’s a shade too wimpy for the rock club or the nightclub. It’s “Uptown Funk” without the charisma of Bruno Mars, and nobody wants that. Literally, nobody wants that.
Much better is the Warped Tour-ready singalong “Boom!”, a song that’s even fun to type. Rather than attempt to rewrite the book, “Boom!” simply highlights everything that Simple Plan do best: swift palm-muted verses, huge choruses, and sappy lyrics about crazy little hearts exploding with love. Bouvier and co. have a real ear for hooks, and they employ it without discrimination here. The result is pleasant enough to make you think that bubblegum punk might still carve out a place in the musical landscape of 2016. A truly catchy chorus is a timeless thing, and Simple Plan don’t exactly have trouble producing hooks. When their punches land, you want to bless these guys for sticking to their guns and not growing up. But the misses are real and painful, and they make Taking One For the Team a far more embarrassing listen than it needed to be.
Essential Tracks: “Boom!”, “Nostalgic”