Max Bemis has always been one of my guitar gods. The frantic solos and crushing melodies were what initially drew me into the band in the first place. When I heard that the band’s newest album, Hebrews, was made without any guitars, it left me with a single reaction: “WAT.”
Bemis has always been known for his eccentric tendencies and often quirky song writing, but there was something so off-putting about a rock band opting for a plethora of keyboards and orchestral instruments. To be completely honest, I was turned off to the idea and ultimately wasn’t excited for the album at all. What I didn’t expect was for Hebrews to be the album that Say Anything fans have been wanting since In Defense of the Genre, if not …Is A Real Boy.
What it lacks in the comfort of guitar rock, it more than makes up for in the intensity and storytelling of classic Say Anything song writing. For an album that sounds similar to a Ben Folds/Hellogoodbye hybrid, it’s easily one of Bemis’ best works, if not the album that is ultimately able to equal Is a Real Boy. It’s adventurous, intimate and cleverly orchestrated chaos. There are so many layers to these songs – each one demands multiple listens just to catch everything being thrown out there. Ironically, this is also the hardest record since IDotG.
While keyboards act as the primary instrument of the record (dueling with Bemis’ voice for lead), they never feel overdone or in the way. Bemis essentially destroys the instrument, banging viciously before gently pumping out a circus-styled melody and gentle sound. Constant synth is used in the background for added layering throughout several songs, similar to Hellogoodbye.
The real surprise is how effective the use of unconventional instrumentation affects the songs. The orchestration is subtle, but extraordinarily efficient. The faint grump of a tuba adds just the right layer of bass to supplement. Or a song like “Boyd”, easily the hardest and fastest song on the album, that uses a fiddle and violin where hardcore punk guitar chords would have normally been. In essence, the hardcore punk melody is there, but with a completely unique sound unlike most anything else I’ve ever heard.
Garron DuPree’s bass melodies are among the best of Say Anything’s discography. He’s a relentless musician and more than capable to stand toe-to-toe with Bemis’ nightmarishly demanding writing. It’s almost alarming how entrancing his bass lines are when they manage to crash into the forefront of the song. Where the keys take over normal guitar parts, DuPree’s bass keep the songs on course and give the punk edge expected of Say Anything. New recording drummer Reed Murray is able to match the quality that we all grew to love from Coby Linder with sleek precision and hard beats.
Arguably the most prominent instrument is Bemis himself, providing the best vocal performance since IDotG. His vocal range races from one end of the scale to the other, from gentle crooning (“Lost My Touch”) to guttural punk screams and growls (“Boyd”). The guest vocals for each song are very similar to IDotG, as each guest adds small segments to the songs, either just hidden in the background (Chris Conley in “John McClane”) or complete take over (Jeremy Bolm and Christie Dupree in “Lost My Touch”). For an album that features guest vocals on literally every song, each instance feels necessary and special.
Lyrically, this is the most intimate Bemis has been since Is a Real Boy, which is part of the magic that gave his initial songs so much gravity. They’re deeply personal, self-deprecating and funny. In many ways, Hebrews feels like the sequel to Is a Real Boy that we always wanted, as well as a continuation to the “story” concept from that album as well.
“Judas Decapitation” is more of a sequel to fan favorite “Admit It!!!” than “Admit It Again” was, as Bemis tears away at himself through the eyes of his own fans and their apparent waning support of his recent albums. He sings “I hate that dude now that he’s married / He’s got a baby on the way, poor Sherri…So he’s convinced it’s a manic delusion to know true love / Be 19 with a joint in hand, never change the band”.
In “Lost My Touch”, Bemis croons “Some say I’ve lost my touch at crafting Say Anything songs / I suppose I’ll let you take my place on stage; it’s not a difficult job to supplant, young one”, biting himself against the complaints of fans.
However, as hateful as he can be towards himself, Bemis still harbors the uniquely dark lyrics we expect from him in songs like “Six Six Six,” where he sings “I belong in jail but I lied my way to heaven with a wife who hasn’t learned that I’m Satan yet”, before breaking out into the chorus amid sweeping keyboards.
Hebrews isn’t just the new Say Anything album; it’s the quintessential Say Anything album, comparable to Is a Real Boy in how unique and important it is to the discography of this band. Each song is adventurously elaborate and surprising in how it makes up for the lack of rock’s primary instrument.
Bemis lifted any restrictions he’d had lyrically, rampaging through themes of inward reflection, family, the views of his own fan base and religion. For any band other than Say Anything, this would best be a side project. However, Hebrews is easily one of the best albums of the year, and hands down one of Max Bemis’ best works.
by Kyle Schultz