A lot of people stop listening when I say, “pop music,” thinking I mean made-for-radio commercial fluff. That’s not what I mean. And today I get to talk about one of my favorite pop outfits.
As long as I can remember, I’ve been a fan of mope-rock. I don’t mean emo shoegaze stuff, though I did have a period when I was heavily invested in The Cure, when I still took The Smiths seriously, and, to this day, Depeche Mode remains my favorite band. But that’s not what I’m talking about. Leslie Gore was its vanguard with “It’s My Party” and They Might Be Giants went on to perfect this particular practice: upbeat, major key pop nuggets full of dismal lyrics that you can overlook until you catch yourself singing along with them.
On February 14 (appropriately enough), 2005, Pete Hobbs and Jof Owen threw their collective hat into the happy music/sad lyrics ring with the release of The Boy Least Likely To‘s debut album, The Best Party Ever. It’s a good effort, a solid 4* record, and an excellent continuation of the mope rock aesthetic. Rolling Stone said that the album sounds as “if all your childhood stuffed animals got together and started a band.” I’m guessing they weren’t listening closely to the lyrics on tracks like “I See Spiders When I Close My Eyes” and “Hugging My Grudge.”
The opening verse on the album sings, “Staring up into the solar system / All the stars are fixed up in the sky / I just want to sparkle for a moment / Before I just fizzle out and die” from “Be Gentle With Me.” And while Jof Owen goes on to tell us, “If I wasn’t so happy / I wouldn’t be so scared of dying,” it’s hard to buy what he’s selling when a couple verses later he creeps us out with a line like, “Insects flutter up against my window / I don’t like the way they look at me.”
If it’s hard to imagine how these lyrics could be disguised as cotton-candy pop music, I have to chalk that up to an unfamiliarity with the band’s output. Give a listen to one of the darker cuts on the album below and see what I mean.
Despite the lyrics (or despite the music, depending on your mood), this is an immensely enjoyable album. Pete Hobbs’s music and the melodies that these two create together are sheer joy in spite of the incongruous vocals. The juxtaposition works as a reminder that even when things are at their darkest, there’s still the potential for happiness. (Conversely, if I were of a different frame of mind, I could argue that the lyrics only serve to point out that no matter how happy and sunny things seem, there’s always something to bring you down again. I suppose the truth is somewhere in the middle.)
The Boy Least Likely To went on to put out a couple more albums, the most recent being 2013’s The Great Perhaps and my favorite being 2009’s The Law Of The Playground, but they haven’t yet plumbed the depths the way they did on their debut. There are still classic mope-rock anthems galore, but they lighten things up a little bit on subsequent releases with songs like “Every Goliath Has Its David,” “When Life Gives Me Lemons I Make Lemonade,” and “The Dreamer Song.” It still seems a little off that a band with such happy melodies could have such dour lyrics, but the songs work so well that it’s easy to focus on one or the other and take what you want from the music.
Added Bonus: in 2006, a year after the release of their debut, The Boy Least Likely To contributed a cover of George Michael’s “Faith” to a Q Magazine exclusive compilation. Enjoy!