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Review: AJR Dance Through Coming of Age Reality on ‘Neotheater’

Trio of brothers offer a refreshing antidote to Top 40 gloom on their third album

On their third LP, this trio of brothers build on the commercial success of 2017’s The Click, with bubbly tracks steeped in light orchestration, crisp hooks and even a little social commentary. Earlier this year, their single “Burn the House Down” became a semi-official anthem against gun violence by the March For Our Lives. They hit one or two adjacent notes here, too. “Birthday Party” is sung from the perspective of a newborn baby in the hospital: “I bet my ignorance is always bliss/Except ignoring pigment in our skin/I bet my country’s nice to immigrants,” the theoretical infant assumes. Elsewhere, AJR sing about coming of age from a more personal perspective: “Don’t Throw Out My Legos” is a saccharine but strangely affecting ode to lost innocence, riding pensive pianos and an ascending beat as they turn “I don’t wanna move on” into a boy-band lament, and “100 Bad Days” is a catchy catalogue of potential life-altering tragedies (“I wrote a song that no one knows/I played a show and no one showed”).

Usually, AJR treat these slings and arrows with a lighthearted matter-of-factness. They jokingly off-quote Nietzsche (“what doesn’t kill you makes you ugly”) on “Break My Face,” and “Karma” turns an unearned lack of good fortune into a buoyant song. The music’s effervescence — mixing hip-hop, EDM and strummy pop, adding strings and horns — makes for an album that flies in the face of modern Top 40’s conventional glumness. “Wow, I’m Not Crazy” turns a mutual recognition of everyday psychological trauma (“frankly I’m scared of clowns”) into an arena-size sing-along that could do wonders for a generation of tweens who saw IT way too young.

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