Arts album review

AJR’s ‘OK Orchestra’ is more than just okay

For a quarantine album, it certainly hits hard

OK Orchestra
S-Curve Records
March 26, 2021

AJR released their third studio album, OK Orchestra, Friday. Overall, the album does a very good job of rehashing themes from their previous albums that are now a central part of their sound. With four promotional singles over the span of a year, from “Bang!” in Jan. 2020 to “Way Less Sad” on Feb. 27, 2021, OK Orchestra was a long time coming and did not disappoint.

A few traits of AJR make it a unique band. First, the three members are all brothers, with their names, Adam, Jack, and Ryan, forming the band’s titular acronym. This generally informs some of their songs about growing up, their family dynamic, and specific experiences. In addition, Adam, the eldest, is pursuing a PhD and runs a nonprofit in addition to his involvement in AJR. After Neotheater was released in 2019, rumors swirled that Adam would be leaving the band. This sense of uncertainty regarding the longevity of the band makes any release extra special.

The second defining characteristic of AJR is their dedication to incorporating experimental production and instrumentation into their music and sharing that with their listeners, which comes across in their shows and Ryan’s livestreams, where they build the instrumental tracks in real time. On OK Orchestra, this is echoed in the first track, the overture. Aside from being their trademark mash-up of the rest of the album, “OK Overture” starts with a demonstration of how drums can be filtered to play the melody.

With all that out of the way, let’s dive into what makes this album so good: the juxtaposition of upbeat music and incredibly somber lyrics. There are two, maybe three songs that are slower and incorporate more minor progressions on the 13-track project, while the rest are often drum- and brass-heavy. The production often layers multiple instruments and vocal tracks, which gives most of the songs that atmosphere of jumping with a crowd at a concert.

The one song that got more and more tragic as I listened to it more was “Joe,” which is about someone from middle school who was simultaneously the idol and the bully. The first verse speaks of Joe as “God” and recounts when Joe called their last name lame. As it turns out, the AJR brothers’ last name is “Metzger,” not “Met,” which is a Jewish surname. The covert nod to schoolyard anti-Semitism highlights a sobering reality of the parts of America that never change. The chorus essentially begs for approval from this spectre of an eighth grader who was cooler and busier and got the girls. The ironic line, “I don’t ever think of you / Look at all this stuff I do / I’ve played shows in Belarus / Now, Joe, do you think I’m cool?” says a lot about how children often carry this hurt with them much later into life. In AJR’s characteristic style, all of this is placed over a bubbly piano flourish and a beatbox track.

Another similarly gut-wrenching song is “My Play,” which takes on a young child’s voice to discuss the impact of divorce on kids. The indignation at having to perform the same play a second time at “dad’s new place,” combined with the vocals in the chorus progressively morphing from singing to shouting, really captures how confused, angry, and lost children can be when their parents decide to split up.

The three-song progression of “Humpty Dumpty,” “World’s Smallest Violin,” and “Way Less Sad” explores the public performance of being alright while struggling. “Humpty Dumpty” retells the well-known nursery rhyme, with Humpty Dumpty smiling while falling down the wall in front of a big crowd and telling himself he’ll “scream when there’s nobody around.” Meanwhile, “World’s Smallest Violin” chronicles the mental spiral of minimizing one’s own pain, comparing the need to visit a therapist with their grandfather fighting in World War II and their great-grandfather serving as a firefighter. The image of the world’s smallest violin is an apt analogy, since the violin is known canonically for its heart-wrenching, nostalgic sound. Finally, “Way Less Sad” comes in with the most upbeat “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” but still admits, “No, I’m not happier, but I’m way less sad.”

Other songs on the album move into the territory of fame-centered troubles. Though less relatable, they certainly show the reality of being in the entertainment industry. “Christmas in June,” in particular, is addressed to a partner who often misses special occasions and holidays because of the band’s schedule — hence a request to celebrate Christmas in June, when they are less likely to be touring, instead of December.

The song “3 O’Clock Things” connects general, relatable existentialism to AJR’s reality as public figures. Starting with some general anxieties that one might get at 3 a.m., such as wondering “if someone’s shy or if they hate me,” the song builds to the impossibility of discussing politics as a performer. Specifically, they would have to “stay out of all of it to keep half [their] fans,” a consequence that many performers face when speaking out about political or social issues. Fortunately, they still keep the line, “If you’re fucking racist, then don’t come to my show,” before jumping into a jazzy, brass-filled instrumental break to close out the song.

When AJR put out this album, they remarked that while it might not explicitly talk about the COVID-19 pandemic, the songs on it are certainly a product of its time. The exploration of politics, isolation, and mental health are sure signs of that. Yet it’s still an escapist album, because I can already tell what each and every song would be like at a show, which will hopefully come soon.