Justin Furstenfeld never claimed to write generic rock songs. The founding member, lead singer and guitarist of Blue October has penned six albums of autobiographical material, focusing on his stay in a mental institution in the mid-90s and subsequent recovery. His early albums (The Answers, Consent To Treatment, History For Sale, Foiled) are poignant, painful and intensely personal, resulting in some of the most sumptuous rock music recorded today. Justin’s new role as a proud father created a fresh, ebullient direction for the band’s last production, Approaching Normal, and opened doors for new musical possibilities.
Unfortunately, much has changed since we last heard from Blue October. The group’s newest album, Any Man In America, released on August 16th, centers on Justin’s bitter divorce and custody battle over his beloved daughter, Blue. There isn’t bone-breaking anger on this album; the pain is deeper, more confused and unresolved. Only two of the tracks edge toward the explosive rage that punctures previous albums. Justin’s vocal performance remains as intimate as ever, and you get the sense that he’s still working through the issues he sings about.
The musical composition of the album is gorgeous, and harnesses the tools that have made Blue October great since the beginning: inventive drums and a heavy reliance on strings, blended with Justin’s soulful, echoing vocals. The finished product is layered, complex and infinitely listenable. “The Feel Again (Stay)” and “The Chills,” both singles, sport a classic Blue October sound, and it’s brilliant. If anything, the band is too comfortable in its own sound, and, for the first time, willing to bend for commercial viability. Tropes that defined Blue October’s early success, like the use of voice mail recordings to open “Hate Me,” the band’s most famous single, feel tired when they’re used on half the album’s tracks. As well, the melodies take the easy way out on too many of the tracks, wending through deliciously experimental verses to hit choruses of obvious chord progressions.
The shift of subject material from psych wards to divorce courtrooms plays havoc with Justin’s lyrics. Arguably Blue October’s greatest strength till now, his lyrics have always bordered on the poetic, tackling weighty subjects with a descriptive, poignant script. Any Man In America is comprised of scenario-specific libretto, vacillating between strings of stream of consciousness, shrink-wrapped to fit Justin’s personal experiences, and overblown generalities, scrambling to encompass all human emotions. As a listener, I can’t empathize or identify with much of anything on this album. Several songs, including the title track and “The Flight (Lincoln to Minneapolis),” even experiment with rap solos and a weird, disjointed vulgarity that doesn’t let Justin’s poetry shine through.
In the end, Any Man In America has a sound that soars, but doesn’t make sense as a coherent whole. It’s a muddle of simultaneously potent and pedestrian emotions that never go far enough and end up vanilla. Justin may undergo a whole spectrum of passions, but he doesn’t own them; instead, he equivocates, and he leaves his audience out in the cold. The album doesn’t climax. It just feels unresolved.