Weekly 40-Watt #13: The Maine's 'You Are OK'

Weekly 40-Watt is a feature where I listen to an album or band, new or old, for the first time and jot down some notes on it.

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One of the great music surprises of 2017 for me was The Maine’s Lovely Little Lonely, an album that ranked fifth on my 2017 EOTY list, and an album that has persisted in my regular listening queue as much or more than the albums I ranked above it. As I’ve fallen out of listening to massive amounts of music, I’ve found that the most enjoyment I can get out of an album is when it surprises me, coming from an unexpected place.

When I was writing 100 album reviews a year, so much of the music I listened to was from bands that I had never sat with before, either because they were brand-new or because I hadn’t listened to their past work; the experience was so common as to be neutral. But today, listening to a band for the first time — while not completely novel or foreign — holds more meaning to me. In a way not meant to be pretentious at all, there’s just a higher bar set for the entry into what I’ll listen to when there’s less listening going on. It will usually take a personal recommendation from a friend, a non-personal recommendation from one of the few music critics I really like, or a critical mass of chatter amongst my Twitter timeline for me to pop something new into my Apple Music feed.

The latter is what happened with Lovely Little Lonely. A swell of support for the album’s release got me to listen, and now that The Maine have converted me into a fan of their most recent work, the word-of-mouth hive that got me to spin the 2017 release is hardly shocking. Being a diehard fan of The Maine (which I am, admittedly, not, as a listener who doesn’t partake in the band’s five albums released before 2017) comes with a different set of rules than being a fan of most bands; this group makes a career out of a community built by them and their fans for them and their fans. A self-sustaining band — with no traditional label deal, unique management representation and a holistically modern DIY approach to the whole thing — is pretty rare to find when you’re working at The Maine’s level of operations, although it will likely become more common in the near future. My good friend Zack Zarrillo, with his new management venture Alternate Side, is a prime example of the type of manager who seeks to set artists up in a vaguely similar working model when it makes sense.

Once listening, though, the album hooked me on first spin. It was, for me, just one of those sounds — The Maine splits the line between pop and rock, leaning certainly to the poppy end of the spectrum, but never really deciding to plant a foot firmly in either camp. It’s a great case of being able to have it both ways. They can drive a track forward with tempo, they can step back into pop-centric production with the bells and whistles you might expect, they can rip a mini guitar solo to set up a final chorus. Lovely Little Lonely was the ideal summer companion, an album that was glossy on the surface but held depth as a holistic piece of work, and I was hopeful for a similar result from their newest release, You Are OK.

Just released on March 29, the album does indeed deliver on higher expectations. This is the logical next step in the relationship when an established band that you might not have cared for in the past releases an album that you like a lot. Will the group fall back into obscurity, as far as your tastes are concerned? Or will whatever shift that captured you with the last release carry forward into the new one? It can be easy to be happily surprised by an album that you have no expectations for upon first listen, but natural internal bias and anticipation will raise the stakes for the next new release. You Are OK brings forth all of the pop and rock tightrope-walking that I loved in Lovely Little Lonely while serving a message that I consider a bit more emotional than its predecessor.

A sprawling, nine-minute closer is the easy track to point to as proof-positive of The Maine’s full turn from MySpace neon-pop band-of-the-minute to bonafide stars in the emo-rock-for-adults genre that they might have helped found. The song is a bit overwrought, but it grants an arena-rock setting for a big theme to play out: “You don't plan life, you live it / You don't take love, you give it.” No one’s going to fawn over the prose here, but the themes at the core are strong.

Elsewhere, the album treats you to the type of pop-rock goodness that will fill a summer playlist. This is what I loved about Lovely Little Lonely — the ability to enjoy tracks on their own or the album as a whole. “My Best Habit,” “Numb Without You” and “One Sunset” are all great standalone bangers. The album can take you to another place, but the singles are super strong on their own.

The Maine’s career arc is a memorable one. They’re one of the most interesting active bands from an operations standpoint, and their last two albums have their music catching up to that level of interest for me.