Arthur Enders probably wishes he was writing music for a genre with more devoted followers. Unfortunately, his claim to fame is as the head of mainstream emo band The Early November, the archetypical embodiment of a genre that for me is saturated with some of the more gut wrenching of high school attitudes. Emo's success, especially in the last few years, has been due mostly to its appeal to the layperson; although not exclusively appearing in the seven-CD collections of ninth grade girls, it certainly is getting close. The accessibility is nothing to hold against the genre, unless you're an intolerant bigheaded snob, the ranks of which I am obviously quickly approaching. Emo is rarely something to obsess over (though there are those who are surprisingly devoted to it) and therefore this obscure solo project will remain virtually as underground as can be.
The album initially caught my interest when I heard the "Kashmir"-esque epic "Whispering Actually", with its throbbing synthesized strings creating an ominous mood I rarely heard in emo. It's not quite the towering masterpiece it masquerades as, but it is the most exciting work by an emo musician that I have ever heard. This is because it stands tall and seems to valiantly abandon the melodramatized mundane for the straightforward myth, also much like Led Zeppelin. I couldn't expect the whole album to be like this - it would be positively confusing if it were - but I also had faith that Ace's cool ideas would, even if less frequently displayed, be up to par. Instead he thought he could riddle the album with aspects of the great concept albums, which wear so thin they are usually transparent. But how can I pretend not to appreciate the effort? I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody's Business is above-average emo in a totally different way than Brand New's Deja Entendu (which I believe is still the genre-topper); Deja was comfortable being emo and did all that could be done with the genre on one album, while I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody's Business is a collection of restless and sloppy stabs at the walls of the style.
Perhaps I should step out of the realm of generalization to illustrate what I actually mean. Recordings of what sound like radio clips and television shows are literally ubiquitous; virtually every song uses it at the beginning and end, perhaps to give the impression of one long studio session with a TV left on in the back the whole time. I can only feel the intended effect of this technique when I listen to Pink Floyd, the original employers. Enders' reverence is in the right place, but as insensitive as it sounds, the technique bored me on this album.
Another vibe I get from this album is that of a very long wind-down. Since "Whispering Actually" is the conceptual peak of the album, the sappiness of tracks 3 onward suggests the album will close soon. There's an interesting reason for this. The great album writers of the past several decades have always recognized a curve of energy and creativity that rises and falls during the course of the album, and have arranged accordingly. (I can just see the iPod puppets reading this with slacked jaws). I guarantee that Beatles enthusiasts wouldn't have loved "A Day in the Life" quite so much if it hadn't been the concluder for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Many otherwise consistent artists have used the concluding track to be their most honest, profound, lo fi, lethargic, or "emo". It's too bad that the commercialism of the genre has cheapened the effect of real heartfelt honesty, but there you have it. I'm a child of cynicism. I rolled my eyes before I could help myself when Track 7 came on with "It gives me/hope for the best in everyone/ in understanding what we've done..." I could have forgiven the cheese if it was the last track, but it's not even halfway through the album. Even if the attention curve was well constructed, the album would drag at an overlong 15 tracks and 50-odd minutes.
There are many things that can be relied on that will comfort some and exhaust others. The acoustic guitar is everywhere, which at least lends the music more sophistication than simple power-chord progressions, though since I find this music best when energetic or epic, the steady plucking at the beginning of so many songs eventually felt like a telltale omen that I wouldn't be too impressed. Ace's voice is another universal constant, and that's not a good thing. At its worst it feels like the musical equivalent of spreading cream cheese on bacon - that is, it's so emotional that even if you could enjoy some aspects there is so little subtlety that it's just overwhelming. At its best, it's deliberately cracked but able to carry a tune, like most indie singers.
If there's one great thing about this album, it is that the ear-catching and mind-catching techniques are often hand in hand. Enders makes sure that at least one part (chorus, verse, harmony) in each song has these characteristics of simple originality and catchiness. For example? "The Best Happiness Money Can Buy" is a campfire singalong with a good rhythm and a smattering of vocal layers featuring several Aces singing somewhat casually. Don't take this as the insult it could be designed for, but the track is good because it's so short. There's little room for much more than a catchy chorus. So no, I'm not suggesting Ace couldn't write a perfect song, with ideally balanced parts, he just couldn't write fifteen of them. He had a pretty good idea what he wanted with this album, and that certainly wasn't for it to have "filler" and a few hits. So he distributes his songwriting talent, and anyone with the drive to buy the Early November lead man's solo album will certainly have the attention span to appreciate it for what it is - a consistent effort and vision with inconsistent compatibility.