Keith Murray shifted in his seat and hesitated when I suggested that the lyrics on We Are Scientists’ latest record, Helter Seltzer, are more sincere and less ironic than on past WAS records.
“I don’t know if it’s more sincere, but I think, maybe on earlier albums, I was more disdainful of the things that I was sincere about,” he said before laughing at his younger self. “I think the situations I was in were objectively stupider. The stuff I was singing about was genuinely more cringeworthy to me.”
If there’s a theme that emerged from my interview with Murray and Chris Cain, the principals of We Are Scientists, before their Tuesday show at Brighton Music Hall, it’s that the band doesn’t want to romanticize where they’ve been and where they are, or who they’ve been and who they are. And they’re not big fans of nostalgia, neither lyrically, nor musically.
“When you look at your present situation, it’s fundamentally impossible to be objective about it. Whereas, you can look back at your twenties with a healthy dose of sarcasm, and hopefully with empathy, but also, it’s kind of like, ‘Look at this asshole,'” Cain said.
Murray continued, “I think it’s to your point, that Ian [McCarthy], our tour manager, pointed out today a band that I won’t name that we put on in the van and he was immediately disgusted by the faux-nostalgia that was being displayed lyrically. And it kind of dovetailed with, or aligned with, the Bon Jovi song that was playing at the rest stop which was ‘Never Say Goodbye,’ which I think is a great song. But as I was listening to it, it’s just like, it’s cheap, fake nostalgia.” Both Murray and Cain then improvised a few more libidinous verses to “Never Say Goodbye,” just to point out some ways Bon Jovi and company might have elided some of that nostalgia for an objective take on the past. And their point was made. “Nostalgia can be milked for romantic effect to make a song salable,” as Murray said. “But with that said, it’s a f–king good song.”
Looking at the corpus of We Are Scientists’ records, it’s hard to find a nostalgic stroke. It’s hard to find even a sentimental or romantic stroke. The band do what they do, and hope their fans dig it. Lyrically, this means Murray describes situations with an irony and objectivity that certainly reflects himself, but also allows his audience a space within the song. Cain described this balance, “There’s also this thing that one does with pop lyrics… where you genericize the lyric in order to make it as broadly applicable and appealing as possible. But you don’t want to lose so much detail that it’s just transparently a cipher, and therefore, has no punch.”
Having no punch should not be much of a concern for We Are Scientists. Even with the more taut and sleek production on Helter Seltzer, the band plows forward with a concise set of hooks over a relentless rhythmic foundation. “This one has a lot more four-on-the-floor, dancy-sounding kicks. Not that they’re dance beats, necessarily,” Cain said. “These are often way more straight-ahead beats, in a way that we find more satisfying with these songs.” In that way, there’s a slight stylistic deviation from their earlier records on Helter Seltzer, but not to the point of losing their audience. If the band strikes a balance between reflection and accessibility in their lyrics, they’re doing something similar with their sound. It makes them tough to describe, but no less fun to listen to. “In some ways, I wonder if that’s to our detriment, because it gives you a nice story if you change dramatically. But also, if you change at all, people will gripe because they’re fooled, like the way I gripe if a restaurant I like changes their menu,” Murray said.
If We Are Scientists do change dramatically, we’re almost guaranteed that it won’t be back to something they’ve done earlier in their career. They’ll leave the cheap, fake nostalgia to Bon Jovi and the unnamed bands on the radio.
See our gallery from We Are Scientists’ show with Prism Tats at Brighton Music Hall here.