A Great Big World does not hide its intentions on its debut album Is There Anybody Out There?-every track is either a proud “Yes!” to the question posed in the title, or a solemn “I think so.” While the duo has noble ambitions, its intense positivity often comes across as naive. Taking on the nerd-pop sound championed by Fun. in previous years, A Great Big World does more to date Fun.’s sound than regenerate it.
Many of the tracks on Is There Anybody Out There? are piano-driven, soft-rock tunes that are bouncy and kind of amusing, but as the album goes on, every track sounds more or less the same. The message is clearly positive, but oversimplified. “Rockstar,” the first track on the album, shows this from the outset. The song is about a boy and girl who wish to be (you guessed it) rockstars. The bouncing piano instrumental, the second grade-friendly lyrics, and the ad-libbing all combine into a song best suited for children.
“I Really Want It” and “Shorty Don’t Wait” are also big-time abusers of this childish quality, and this goes beyond the lyricism. The musicality can feel oversimplified, as well. A Great Big World has something of an ear for obvious repetition of piano chords, but when it combines this with upbeat music, the outcome is boring and uninventive. “This Is The New Year” the first single off the album, is unfortunately the biggest proponent of this bad habit.
“Land of Opportunity,” a track complete with a tambourine, a New Orleans jazz breakdown, and something of an explosion toward the end of the track, is one of the more tolerable songs on the record, because of the different musical avenues explored with it. As the record’s second track, it is probably the most entertaining cut on the album. That isn’t saying much, however, when most of the tracks sound like they would fit perfectly in a horrible “coming-of-age” movie.
A Great Big World shines on tracks that show off a deeper understanding of the album’s central concept-moments that focus on the vulnerability posed in the record’s title question, “Is there anybody out there?” It’s a question that doesn’t need to be answered directly. “Say Something” is the most popular song on the album, and rightly so, but it typically isn’t a great sign when a single can outshine an entire album. This song alone almost disproves any criticism of the duo’s repetitive piano rhythms-the piano on this track does not change at all. The other instruments are essentially restricted, subtle. This soundscape is perfect for the lyrics of the song, which allude to more complicated emotion. It is a ballad about the feeling of wanting to leave someone, and also wanting that person to give you a reason not to go. The lyrics are gripping in a way otherwise unachieved on the album, more in the vein of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” or in The Fray’s “Never Say Never” than the silly pop anthems dominating the rest of the record.
“I Don’t Wanna Love Somebody Else” seems to serve as an expansion of feelings alluded to in “Say Something.” A better album would have had more tracks like these-not necessarily somber music like that of The Fray, but tracks that lyrically are more willing to explore complex emotions. Songs like “Say Something” prove that A Great Big World is capable of creating this kind of meaningful art. The duo is obviously talented with a great ear for songs, construction, and arrangement. Hopefully A Great Big World’s fan base will demand more tracks that they can actually feel a little more grown up listening to.