Singled Out is a monthly column in which Collin Brennan turns up the radio and takes a look at the chart-topping singles of the day. With several artists making their highly publicized return to the spotlight this August, this installment connects the dots between the month’s biggest comeback singles.
July was supposedly the hottest month in modern history, but tell that to the music fans who waited all summer for their favorite artists to return from extended or indefinite hiatuses and finally got their wish when the calendar turned to August. Japandroids kicked off the fun when everyone’s favorite Springsteenian rock duo announced their first tour in two years, with an album presumably nipping at its heels on the ol’ Fire’s Highway. Then, just a day later, Green Day fired two shots heard round the world when they dropped “Bang Bang”, a back-to-basics ripper that promises a return to the trio’s leaner, meaner days on the forthcoming Revolution Radio.
The hits kept coming through the weekend, when Bon Iver returned from whatever cabin he’s been hibernating in and dropped an entire album in front of a live audience at Eaux Claires Festival. Have you had enough yet, mortals?, he seemed to say, though the words were slightly muffled by his scraggly beard. Just like that, three of alternative radio’s most talked-about acts had shoved their way back to the spotlight and rewritten whatever narratives had been percolating in their absence. With an August like this, who needs everything after?
This would have been an historic month for comebacks even if it had ended there. But August’s third week brought more developments in this brave new world of popular music. Heavy metal legends Metallica joined in the fun with the release of their thrashiest single in years, “Hardwired”, and the announcement of an album soon to follow. And, of course, on the other end of the “metal up your ass” spectrum, the elusive R&B crooner Frank Ocean finally got tired of paying library fines and dropped not one but two full albums, Endless and Blonde. Only in a world like this could a new Jimmy Eat World single — the band’s first since 2013, and a pretty good one, too! — be met with the Internet’s equivalent of a shruggie emoji. Which, now that I’m thinking about it, is probably just a shruggie emoji. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
With so many long-awaited comebacks arriving all at once, it can be difficult to process what it all means, if indeed it means anything beyond “a bunch of musicians finally decided to get their shit together at exactly the same time.” But the fact of the matter is that at least five artists (six if you count this week’s American Football announcement) came roaring back with new singles this month, and that in and of itself seems worthy of discussing at further length. Given this column’s focus on singles and how they fit into the larger narrative of pop music, I thought it’d be worthwhile to analyze each of these new chart-toppers and see if any trends emerge. In doing so, we might learn a thing or two about what to expect from these artists going forward.
The Release Date: August 11, 2016
The Reveal: What started as a simple heads-up post on Billie Joe Armstrong’s Twitter became something much larger as the hype machine took hold. It started when Nik Rivers of 107.7-FM in Buffalo posted an early review of “Bang Bang”, specifically likening it to “early, punky Green Day” as opposed to the overblown album trilogy ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, ¡Tre!. Then the single artwork dropped on Instagram, and publications such as NME put on their sleuth hats and speculated about the forthcoming album’s name. The band wisely stayed silent until they released the single on August 11th, knowing that the rampant speculation could only help their cause.
The Reaction: It’s pretty ballsy for a pop punk band to write an anti-gun violence song from the P.O.V. of a mass shooter, but Green Day otherwise stick to a very tried-and-true script here. “Bang Bang” lives up to Rivers’ promise of furious punk energy while hinting at a return to the overtly political posturing of American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. It’s missing the looseness and sense of humor that characterize the band’s earliest material, but that hasn’t stopped fans from hailing it as the best thing Green Day’s done in a decade.
The Verdict: Green Day are going to have a hard time rewriting the book on their career at this point. They’ve already gone through several transformations, shedding and gaining fans at each stage (usually more of the latter). “Bang Bang” is definitely “punk” in the vein of other alt-punk crossover bands like Rise Against, and that might be where Green Day see themselves headed in the future — an angrier, more caustic hard-rock act that tackles the issues head on rather than via vague political anthems like “Know Your Enemy”. In any case, the hype and positive response around the single confirm that lots of people still care about what these guys do, and the song’s cross-generational appeal bodes well for the rest of Revolution Radio.
“22 (OVER S∞∞N)”
The Release Date: August 12, 2016
The Reveal: For a guy who once locked himself in a cabin for an extended period of time, Justin Vernon sure has a way of getting the public’s attention. He initially announced new album, 22, A Million, with the release of “22 (OVER S∞∞N) [Bob Moose Extended Cab Version]” and “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” (Extended Version)”, two songs whose titles hurt to type. He then debuted the album in its entirety live at Eaux Claires Festival in Wisconsin, giving those who had made the trek a reason to be thankful that they did.
The Reaction: Aside from critics cursing Vernon for forcing them to invest in bigger keyboards, both new recordings have been met with near-universal praise. “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” is the album’s opener and feels like the natural single, if only because it so thoroughly introduces us to a new version of Bon Iver — a version that deconstructs and dissects and discombobulates the contemplative folk of his first two releases. It’s as sonically explorative as anything he’s done in the past, with electronic elements and samples expanding the template for 22, A Million.
The Verdict: Of all the “comeback” singles discussed here, “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” is probably the most successful mission statement for an entire record. It retains the best of what Bon Iver’s done in the past but shows remarkable growth and a willingness to stray from “natural” folk sounds into more self-consciously synthetic territory. Despite its maddening name, this has Song of the Year potential for its ability to sketch out a larger narrative and sound heartbreakingly beautiful in the process.
The Release Date: August 18, 2016
The Reveal: Metallica have been at this for more than 30 years, so you can excuse a bunch of old guys for playing it pretty straight this time around. The announcement of Hardwired…To Self-Destruct came on the heels of the band’s live return in Minneapolis, and the single serves the traditional role of offering up the first taste.
The Reaction: As with Green Day, Metallica fans were quick to hop on the similarities between “Hardwired” and the band’s earlier, thrashier material. James Hetfield and the boys definitely aren’t holding anything back here, but they’ve noticeably lost a step in terms of pure speed and seem to be overcompensating for their more commercial-friendly fare with lines like “We’re so fucked!/ Shit out of luck!” OK, dudes. Sure.
The Verdict: Metallica simply don’t have the stamina nor the attitude to truly relive their early days, but they know exactly what fans have been clamoring for, and “Hardwired” delivers something close to their “original” sound. It’s ironic that this might be their best path forward in terms of relevance. Thrash metal was still a fringe genre when Metallica released Kill ‘Em All in 1983, but it has become such a part of the pop vernacular that their best bet may be to look backwards as far as they can. This may come across as a cynical approach to some, but does a band really need to keep innovating three decades into their career?
The Release Date: August 20, 2016
The Reveal: “I got two versions. I got two versions,” sings Frank Ocean in the intro to “Nikes”, and he’s right no matter which way you cut it. The “two versions” could be the two separate albums he released in sequence, starting with the visual album Endless and concluding with the more sonically cohesive Blonde. Or they could be two different versions of Blonde, each with its own tracklist. Or they could be the two versions of “Nikes” itself, one of which features two overlapping voices. Whatever the case, the enigmatic Ocean has mastered the art of the reveal during his four-year absence. All of the false starts and release dates that never came to fruition were foreplay to the main course, which arrived in earnest when the expressionistic video for “Nike” dropped ahead of Blonde.
The Reaction: Though Ocean’s visual album, Endless, met with a mixed reaction, Blonde and its lead single, “Nikes”, have received more universal praise. The funny thing is, “Nikes” works best when paired with its video, which offers up a colorful visual feast of glitter, naked bodies, and religious symbolism. However you experience it, “Nikes” works in part because it interrogates the notion that a piece of art can stand alone, unto itself. If people are confused about how to approach the single and its accompanying album, maybe that’s the point.
The Verdict: No artist has developed a more compelling “comeback” narrative than Ocean, whose infamous library card can attest to all the ways in which he’s teased the listening public over the years. Though he may have alienated some, Ocean’s comeback will undoubtedly go down as the most talked-about of the year and thus the most successful. He’s given us a lot to chew on for the next four years, in case he’s planning on being gone that long.
Jimmy Eat World
The Release Date: August 21, 2016
The Reveal: Though not quite on the same level as some of the other artists staging comebacks this month, Jimmy Eat World have a dedicated fanbase that pays close attention to their every move. So the band deserves credit for surprising everyone when frontman Jim Adkins showed up on Daniel P Carter’s BBC Radio 1 Rock Show earlier this week to premiere new single “Get Right”. They later confirmed that a new album is set to drop October 21st.
The Reaction: 2013’s Damage was a perfectly pleasant album that left almost no impression, so it’s good to note that “Get Right” has a sharper edge that sticks with you after just one listen. Adkins sounds hungrier here, almost like he’s out to prove a point that middle-aged rockers can be just as angsty as emo kids when the occasion suits them. If he can keep up this low level of venom across an entire album, we might be looking at a world in which Jimmy Eat World is finally relevant again.
The Verdict: Before you say, “Hey, 2013 wasn’t all that long ago,” let me stop you right there, because “comeback” can mean different things depending on the circumstances. “Get Home” sounds like the Jimmy Eat World we left behind years ago on Futures, and it’s an exciting development for a group that frankly hasn’t given us much to be excited about in the past decade.