Justin Furstenfeld, frontman for Blue October, hasn’t had an easy life. From a self-committed stint in an asylum that inspired the band’s second album, 2000′s Consent To Treatment, to a lifelong battle with bipolar disorder (on full display on songs like “Drilled A Wire Through My Cheek” and “Ugly Side“), he has utilized music, art, and poetry as outlets for his troubles. But perhaps his most traumatic experience has happened more recently — the divorce from his wife and the custody battle over their daughter, Blue, already formed the basis for a handful of songs on the band’s 2009 release Approaching Normal (review), and now Justin has documented it on a half-concept album, Any Man In America, the Texas rock band’s sixth studio release.
As you might imagine, an album that focuses on a divorce and a custody battle will be rather emotional — and very angry. Blue October’s strength has always been the impassionately emotional content of their lyrics, assisted by Ryan Delahoussaye’s wonderful violin skills; Justin’s writing spoke honestly to a host of fucked-up people trying to find their way to sanity, and I was one of them for almost the entire last decade. I’ve met Justin a few times and had a lengthy conversation with him before a concert in 2005, and I still consider Foiled (review) to be one of my favorite albums ever released. I ran a lyrics website of all the band’s rare material for years. I know every song they’ve ever recorded, and I have live MP3s of songs that only a handful of other people have heard. So I can confidently state that Any Man In Americais at least as emotive — and more personal — than anything the band has ever released; but ironically, that’s also the reason it’s far and away their weakest record.
On past releases, Justin turned intimate revelations, confessions, and rants into rock songs that could find a large audience because he expressed the feelings in universal terms that fans could apply to their own lives. However, despite its title, Any Man In America is not universal; rather than using his life as a springboard from which to dive into the collective consciousness (like he did on the band’s breakout hit, “Hate Me,” along with many other songs), Justin traps himself in the puddle of his own life, hangs a Do Not Disturb sign, and starts ranting. Gone are the “skyscrapes” and metaphors of Foiled, gone is the increasing maturity shown on Approaching Normal; in their place, Justin crafts his lyrics into a baseball bat with which to beat the targets of his anger — namely his ex-wife and her new lover. It’s like “The End” come to life.
Another problematic quality to Any Man In America, one that other reviewers seem unwilling to discuss, is the fact that the majority of these songs are weak compositionally, too. If the album were filled with impenetrable-yet-ingenious tracks, perhaps Justin’s puddle could be excused. Instead, when the band launch into their specialty — towering, intense choruses — the puddle is muddled up with the weakest lyrics Justin has written since the late-’90s. Lead single “The Chills” features the cringe-worthy line “Why do I only get the chills when I’m with you,” and the bland “You Waited Too Long” sounds like Nickelback on the chorus (“You’ll be sorry when I’m gone/ Yeah, you waited too long”). But worst of all is “The Flight (Lincoln To Minneapolis),” whose chorus is possibly the worst of the entire year: “Please help me understand/ Why you can’t talk man to man/ But you just stand with your dick in your hand/ You’re acting like a pussy, man.” From a songwriter that my mother once equated to John Lennon, that lyric is quite horrific.
Any Man In America gets even more frustrating when it attempts genre-bending — something that Blue October have excelled at in the past (electronica on “X Amount Of Words,” children’s pop on “Jump Rope,” a harmonica solo on “Let It Go,” etc.). Southern hip-hop influences framed the Approaching Normal bonus track “78Triple6,” and they’re back — unfortunately. “The Flight” features a half-rapped bridge that is nearly incomprehensible, and therefore bearable, but it’s the 6.5-minute title track where the hip-hop asserts itself. Justin talks-sings about the how his ex-wife tried to “financially benefit” off of the success of “Hate Me,” warns other men that they could be falsely accused of shit that they didn’t do, like he was, and that they should “take back their control,” growls “fuck you”s and “I hate you”s to his targets, and then hands over the mic for a misogynistic and ridiculously mindless rapped bridge which rhymes “bitch” with “bitch” and “bitch.”
I’m not going to dwell on the disturbing misogyny which has upset long-time fans and the weak lyrics any longer, except to mention a shoot-yourself-in-the-head lyric from “The Money Tree”: “A brand-new baby, she’s a baby girl/ And yes, she is a cutie like her mommy/ Yes, yeah, she looks like her mommy.” Come on, Justin. You can do better than this. We know that because of “The Feel Again (Stay)” and “The Worry List,” two of Any Man In America‘s slowest tracks — and the two strongest. They’re introspective, mature, and beautiful… and the latter was written before Approaching Normal. As far as I can tell (with the possible exceptions of “For The Love” and “The Money Tree”), it’s the only older track that Blue October finally worked out in the studio — something that they’ve done multiple times on each album since Consent To Treatment. With a rainbow of wonderful unrecorded tracks, most of which I’ve heard, it’s unbelievable that Blue October resorted to mostly new material — especially when it’s this weak.
I had hoped that, like many records, Any Man In America would get better with multiple listens. In fact, it got worse. It’s a throwaway record from a band that I never thought could write one. It feels like a consummated personal vendetta rather than a rock album; and it also reveals a psychological regression from Justin Furstenfeld. The truly strong people learn from their mistakes, their pain, their hurt, and others’ cruelty and use the new knowledge to become better people; it’s the immature ones that resort to rage, violence (even through lyrics), bitterness, and misogyny. Those of us who have chosen to move past those vices — even though we have countless reasons not to — simply cannot enjoy the majority of this album. Yes, it’s beautiful at times. Yes, it strikes home more often than I’d like to admit. But overall, it’s one of the most bewilderingly disappointing releases I’ve ever heard — and therefore, I’m going to write the hardest thing I’ve ever written in a review.
I’ve been wanting to say this to Justin for awhile now, and because of Any Man In AmericaI’m just going to say it before I lose my nerve: for fuck’s sake, grow up.