What does it mean for a band to break up in 2016? Unless you’re One Direction, it probably doesn’t mean very much, which is why very few bands do it. With YouTube and the myriad streaming services that allow artists to self-release content to fans, the overhead for being a working band — especially for bands that have already established themselves — is not as high as it used to be, when debt to labels and distributors always loomed. So, when Canadian emo/dance-punk/dad reggae band Hot Hot Heat announced that they’d be releasing their final album, it was kind of a head-scratcher. If you’re a band that peaked in 2002, and that has released albums to diminishing returns, why not just open a coffee shop and record in a home studio?
Of course, the benefit of announcing a “final” album is that people will pay to hear a “final” album, because “final” has come to mean “important,” as all things in pop culture must end in ways that are significant and grand and better than the way they began. Unfortunately, Hot Hot Heat are not ending on a note higher than the one on which they started. In fact, if this album, Hot Hot Heat, is any indication, lead singer Steve Bays probably can’t even reach those notes anymore.
But that’s the problem, isn’t it, with rock music? The appeal of a young rock band is usually, at its core, that band’s youth. That’s why plenty of early coverage of Hot Hot Heat, a musically not-bad group, focused on something so stupid as Bays’ hair. (A snippet: “Hot Hot Heat indeed dig focusing their videos on Steve Bay’s big curls and bigger smile. That knowing grin (and final, pouting dismay) made dramatic sense for our tousled hero in ‘Middle Of Nowhere.'”)
Bays was young and pretty and sang about people who were young and pretty. But when the voice is no longer unhinged, and the jeans are as tight (but shouldn’t be), and the curls aren’t as buoyant, and things slow down a little bit, where is a band to go? Especially if they’ve managed to secure some kind of success — a feat which, no matter the state of the music industry, is always magical?
Well, one route is to do the whole farewell thing. And, to be sure, this self-titled album is being sold as a “farewell thing,” with Bays stating via a press release:
I can relate to our fans and I respect our fans. They are the kind of people I’d hang out with. I’m proud of every single record, and of finding the ground between making it challenging and fresh, but also not being afraid to be entertaining and put on a crazy show. Every show we ever did was just a total high energy spectacle and that’s a great legacy to have.
And this album certainly sounds like a group of songs cobbled together in order to sell the farewell narrative, only without the implied existentially grief-stricken undertones, or even celebratory ones. The easiest mirror to this album would be The Strokes’ last album, Comedown Machine, which was recorded only to fulfill a contract, and sounds like it. But that album is at least overflowing with laziness; the ennui is so potent that it becomes endearing. On their self-titled finale, Hot Hot Heat sound like a band that wants to make a good, catchy, important album, but simply can’t.
It’s not all bad. The first single, “Kid Who Stays in the Picture,” is OK, and has a timeless pop-rock quality some bands would kill for; “Magnitude” has a guitar line so square and funky it’d make Albert Hammond Jr. jealous, and a beautiful bit of piano, too; “Modern Mind” is a pre-fame Phoenix song. Closing track “The Memory Is Here,” maybe the only song that directly addresses the fact of this farewell album, is sad, and not just in the way that I’m sure Steve Bays intended it to be. The vocal is some wounded yelp, something like fellow Canadian Spencer Krug mixed with Killers frontman Brandon Flowers. It’s affecting, and works to conjure nostalgia. But it also shines a light on the missed opportunity of this album, and maybe of this band. (The closing refrain of “Kid” is “It could’ve been you,” so.)
But ever since they signed to Sub Pop, Hot Hot Heat have always missed opportunities. For whatever reason, when Make Up the Breakdown blew up in 2002, they felt no need to follow it up until 2005, with Elevator, an album that already showed signs of stylistic fatigue but that also, even after the departure of original guitarist Dante DeCaro, seemed made entirely of ambition. (DeCaro actually went off to join Wolf Parade.) The bloated Happiness LTD. followed in 2007, and it was a grim thing, aiming for that Coldplay-as-U2 target on which so many bands seem fixated — you know, a sound that can sustain a legacy, fill arenas, etc. And then Future Breeds came out in 2010, and it actually wasn’t bad. It was even a little weird, like maybe what would’ve happened if the guy from Ima Robot hadn’t run off and started a band of hippie jingle writers.
That was six years ago, which makes Hot Hot Heat and the farewell seem even more calculated. It’s sad when a band like Interpol or the Strokes keeps making (and promoting) music that undermines their legacy — whatever that means anymore — but there’s at least something admirable in the way they keep chugging along, even if they’re only doing it because they can sell out clubs or pack stages in festival slots. Hell, even Hot Hot Heat’s scenester contemporaries, Fall Out Boy, managed to reinvent themselves after what seemed like an implosion. Hot Hot Heat never had that level of fame. They only had their energy, and it seemed like that energy was coming back with Future Breeds. As is evident on this new album, that was apparently just an illusion.
So they’re calling it quits, monetizing whatever fanbase they’ve got left. Maybe they were inspired by Weezer’s ability to capitalize on past success, or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah‘s anniversary tour, and saw all the money that might be made from selling out shows with nostalgia, only they’d missed the chance to do an anniversary tour for Breakdown. Or, hell, maybe they were just tired of the game, sick of the obligation to the name and the legacy, and rather than dragging it out every few years to cash in a couple of bucks, they wanted to make a to-do out of it. If that’s the case, then great, that’s fine! Perhaps the bravest thing someone can do in 2016 is abandon an artist’s life in pursuit of something less revered. Either way, nobody’s going to be clamoring for a comeback after this album, so, even if the farewell was only planned as a temporary one, it’ll probably last.