"... It's a record, to me, that sounds like a band trying to find it's next record, and that's cool."
Of all of the groups to make a comeback after not having released music since 2012 - and Kids in the Street was not exactly a critically strong note to leave off on - the All-American Rejects have a tougher job than most. The problem is that the Rejects are indelibly steeped in peak 2000's nostalgia. "Dirty Little Secret" is like the "Mr. Brightside" you keep forgetting about until some radio jockey in rural Wisconsin gets bored one summer afternoon and decided to jolt you back into middle school. "Gives You Hell" is one of the most satisfyingly cathartic shout-along songs that ever graced the airwaves.
But somehow, "I Wanna" was the last single to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 - in 2009. None of Kids in the Street ever made it. Though the album itself peaked at number 13 on the Billboard 200, it never graced the halls of our memories with more than a passing good-natured head shake at "Beekeeper's Daughter." In Ritter's own words, during an interview with Billboard, "We were throwing paint at the wall on every song and every song has its own little environment. It's a record, to me, that sounds like a band trying to find it's next record, and that's cool."Then, quietly, the band faded from our cultural awareness. Vocalist Tyson Ritter courted a thriving career as an actor (most regularly in the television show Parenthood). There was never an announcement, no Fall Out Boy or My Chemical Romance drama, and the legions of fans moved on, as it were. Now, for their comeback, the re-entrance into the limelight has still been relatively muted. Ritter's interview with Billboard, some social media posts, and the announcement of a nation-wide tour with The Maine made up the hype. Clamor was pretty muted. The return - two tracks, titled "Sweat" and "Close Your Eyes," are fittingly toned-down and gentle. Co-written with Benny Cassette (who has produced with Kanye and Miguel), they were dropped with a video (directed by Jamie Thraves) - one video for the pair.
"Close Your Eyes" finds Ritter waking up the next morning, quietly peeling off his false eyelashes and donning a suit for his (not-so) surprise party, back with his well-dressed wife and perfectly arranged set of friends and family. The facade shatters itself several times - rather, Ritter shatters it - and throughout, the lyrics fade in and out of central focus with perfect timing. Snippets like "When you walked out, your taste was in my mouth, but lipstick on the window, and you were gone" play as Ritter's wife touches his back in a gently uncomfortable gesture, and the space between them echoes as the song reaches its chorus.
"The day you said it, that's when I knew. I'll never forget it. The day you said it, that's when I knew. I'll make you regret it."
The songs themselves are a step past Kids in the Street - a definitive Rejects-in-2017 sound, steeped in Ritter's usual growl, but this time, with synths that could come from a side stage at some mid-sized New York club. The group vocals remain, as do the crashing bass drums, but the guitar is darker, and the lyrics are no longer every angsty boy's anthem. They are, by nearly every standard, really good songs. They're permeated with shadows that feel comforting real in their darkness, but still sound like the Rejects. It feels like the band has grown with us. That's great.
The scrunched-up nose and raised brow, however, comes at the visual. In what feels a lot like actor Andrew Garfield's recent comments about playing a gay man in the latest production of Angels in America ("I am a gay man right now, pretty much, just without the physical act — that's all"), Ritter is trying his hand at lending a lens to a lifestyle often ignored or scorned, particularly the impossibly difficult and painful life of trans women. (Garfield actually already pulled a similar move in the music video for Arcade Fire's "We Exist.") It's all well and good to want to bring visibility to the taboo of sex work and transgender struggles; but simply put - do we need Ritter and Garfield to be the ones to do it, when they take the costume off in their dressing rooms at the end of the day?