Good Charlotte, The Chronicles of Life and Death

Good Charlotte, The Chronicles of Life and Death

So, once you’ve hit the big time playing in your high school band, become ridiculously popular, been featured on the covers of magazines from here to Kingdom Come, have two hit records under your belt, and been showered with equal doses of adoration and criticism, what do you do? Well, obviously, you craft a complex, ambitious song cycle about life and death — duh.

Actually, I’m not kidding; with their latest album, The Chronicles of Life and Death, teen-hero pop-punkers Good Charlotte have jumped feet-first into the realm of the concept album. At first glance, they may not seem like the likeliest candidates for deep, album-length ruminations on life, suffering, loss, death, and love, but really, if you think about it, what the hell else is teenage poetry written about? From that standpoint, Chronicles makes perfect sense, and sure enough, the majority of the songs are bleak, desperate, and melancholy, even when the music’s cheery. Charloteers Joel and Benji Madden (vocals and guitars, respectively), Paul Thomas (bass), Billy Martin (guitars), and Chris Wilson (drums) may well have succeeded in capturing the essence of the stereotypical angst-ridden, depressive teenager, right down to the cartoonish graphics of the album cover.

That very teenager-ness, however, can work against the album if, say, you happen to be listening as an adult. What sounds deep and meaningful when you’re fifteen and probably haven’t experienced much in the way of real loss tends to sound pretty ridiculous when you’re thirty-two (like me). For all their singing about life and death, the Maddens and company don’t ever really capture the essence of what it’s like to cope with death or confront your own mortality. And that’s not too surprising, because it’s damn hard to do — I’ve only encountered a few songs in my musical life that really, truly grasp the despair and helplessness of death (Peter Gabriel’s “No Way Out” is the only one that comes to mind right now). So, unfortunately, there’s a cartoonish-ness to the actual songs on Chronicle, as well as the artwork; this is no philosophical treatise (how could it be?), but rather an epic life-vs-death struggle as viewed through the eyes of the Playstation Generation. (Heck, the intro track to the album, “Once Upon A Time: The Battle Of Life And Death,” even starts off, anime-style, with a delicately-plucked guitar and chant-singing in what sounds like Japanese.)

Oh, and just to make matters more confusing, there are at least four different versions of this album: the “Life” version, which is the one currently on the Discman and which includes “Falling Away” as the final track; the “Death” version, which replaces “Falling Away” with “Meet My Maker” and has a slightly different cover; the “DualDisc” version, which includes all the tracks from both “Life” and “Death” (and yep, that means it duplicates all but those last two final tracks); and the DVD version, which also includes some bonus tracks (not sure what they are, though). Kids, I’m only going to say this once: if you’re going to try your hand at the Guns N’Roses Use Your Illusion trick, at least put more than one different song on each “half” of the album, okay? Otherwise, you (or your label, possibly) are just being crass. It makes you look like you’re using the two “versions” as a gimmick to sell two albums when you could just sell one. Seriously, this irks me. Just don’t do it, okay?

With all that, though, there’s still something captivating about this. I’m generally pretty leery of bands like Good Charlotte, tending to lump them in with pop junk like Christina Aguilera or Gwen Stefani, and they’ve become almost the prototypical “kid-rock” sound, to me, the one that every other “alternative” band’s trying to hit. (And no, they didn’t invent it, but they’ve become so identified with it that they might as well have.) But even still, the outcast teenager still lurking someplace inside me listens to this, nodding along and frowning passionately, I find my feet tapping along, and I’m surprised to notice that I’m enjoying soft-loud guitars and occasionally offbeat stylistic shifts. Apparently the guys of Good Charlotte aren’t real happy with their status as alterna-icons, because while there are still a ton of relatively generic emo-indie-whatever-rock tracks on here, there’re a few that bend or break the rules. The first “real” song on the disc, title track “The Chronicles Of Life And Death,” actually starts the album off on a bit of an odd note, veering away from the pop-punk and ending up sounding more like OK Go or Fastball with a nicely jaunty pop feel; the damn thing’s catchy enough to suck me in every time, whether I want to let it or not.

Then there’s “I Just Wanna Live,” about which I just have to say, okay, what the fuck? One minute the band’s rocking out and throwing their angst sweetly to the skies…and the next they’re trying their best R. Kelly impression over a defiant R&B groove (complete with falsetto), with echoes of Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” in its leave-me-alone stance. The surprise is that it’s funky as hell, nicely bitter about the sniping of critics at the rock star “lifestyle,” and dammit, I can’t get it out of my head. (But the still: what the fuck? And what the hell does it have to do with the rest of the album?) Sadly, the genre-jumping doesn’t always work so well — the following track, “Ghost Of You,” incorporates some distracting synths that make what would other be a decent song sound like one of those cheesily dramatic, melancholy ’80s synth-pop tunes, and generally, that ain’t someplace you want to be (think When in Rome’s “The Promise,” and you’ll be close).

And okay, I’ll admit it: some of the “rock” tracks are pretty good, too. “We Believe,” for example, soars beautifully, an anti-war (I think?) track that’s practically Christian rock-sweet and sentimental but not cloying, while “In This World (Murder)” grabs a harder sound that a lot of the rest of this disc…which kind of fits, considering that it’s a righteous condemnation of people who try to justify killing other people. “S.O.S.” starts out with a forlorn acoustic guitar, an obvious nod to GC über-influence Green Day (hell, on their Website, the band admits to first learning how to play Green Day songs when they were starting out, so there you go), but then quickly revs up into a desperate rocker, á la Alkaline Trio (and yes, that’s a compliment), and “Predictable” belies its name by being interestingly bitter, with a nice angry spoken rant/breakdown in the middle of a speeding, shiny-edged rock track.

Of course, sometimes the lyrics are just too cheesy even for my inner child to tolerate — “Secrets,” for one, is so hopeful and so focused on standing up and believing and all that good stuff that even its faux-creepy imagery can’t save it from being a candidate for a feel-good teen special on Nickelodeon someday. Similarly, just reading the lyrics to “It Wasn’t Enough” (which primarily consist of variants on the title repeated over and over in different combinations) gives me a headache, despite the apparent sincerity of the song. On the plus side, there’s “The World Is Black,” which is a heartfelt, fairly insightful look at the brutality and evil of the world and is much darker than the cheery pop sound of the music might indicate, and “The Truth,” a desperate, quietly sad plea for honesty with just piano, vocals, and crunching drums.

All in all, while Chronicles is hardly going to win any awards for dissecting the intricacies of life, death, and everything in between, it ends up serving another purpose (possibly the one the band intended; who knows?) by laying out the workings of the teenage mind as it tries to cope with the idea that yes, death waits for everybody, with the horror that runs amok throughout the world, and with the ways in which people treat one another. Not bad for a concept album from a bunch of wannabe punks, eh?

(Epic Records -- http://www.epicrecords.com/; Good Charlotte -- http://www.goodcharlotte.com/)
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Saturday, October 1st, 2005. Filed under Reviews.

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