Album Review: The Story So Far - 'Proper Dose'

3 October 2018 | 1:35 pm | Alex Sievers
Originally Appeared In

Growing up, getting better.

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Pop-punk has had a pretty interesting year in 2018. There's been new-blood stepping up with some energetic and impassioned releases, like Trash Boat's 'Crown Shyness' or new Belmont. There have been bands quite nobly taking it upon their shoulders to address issues much larger than themselves such as the stigma of mental health, like the latest As It Is LP. The Wonder Years forwent pop-punk and deepened the alternative sounds explored on 2015's 'No Closer To Heaven' with the incredibly detailed 'Sister Cities'. And then there's been, quite frankly, some horrifically bland records released this year, such as Between You & Me's 'Everything Is Temporary' and With Confidence's 'Love And Loathing'. (I don't think anyone should be taking relationship and love-life advice from that latter band either). With all of this in mind, where does The Story So Far - one of the biggest pop-punk bands in the game right now - and their new album, 'Proper Dose' sit? Well, it's definitely one of their better records. It's an honest and heartfelt pop-punk album that sheds youthful skin, shares some really intimate personal issues, and also sees the band sonically mature too. It's poppier and more alternative for the band but hasn't lost any of the heart either.

By implementing some new elements into their pop-punk sound and backing off on those punk-driven attitudes, 'Proper Dose' doesn't just feel like genuine growth for The Story So Far: it actually is a progression. This album has an actual changing dynamic, unlike much of their previous works where things often felt and sounded samey. The relaxed, acoustic guitar strumming and harmonica combo on 'Take Me As You Please'; guitarist Kevin Geyer's light keyboards and the Oasis-like vibes heard on 'Upside Down'; the soulful guitar solo on 'If I Fall', the softer, soothing higher-register vocals in the choruses of 'Growing On You'; the noisier, deeply textured guitar lines during the title track's last stretch; and the laid-back percussion and atmospheric layers of 'Line' (a song I utterly adore) are all examples of how The Story So Far are becoming more explorative and varied in instrumentation and songwriting. Which is absolutely a welcome change-up given how tired and formulaic their self-titled record felt. (Sure, 'Nerve' and 'Heavy Gloom' were bangers, but two good songs do not solely a good album make). And this is something I feel that a lot of their core fanbase is really appreciating about this latest release too, which is genuinely great to see!

Of course, there's still the riffy, groovy, finger-pointing pop-punk tunes here; the kind that the American act cultivated earlier this decade to reach the household name they now flex. 'Out Of It', 'Keep This Up', 'Need To Know', and 'If I Fall' definitely fit into the older, faster-paced Story So Far in terms of chords, vocal hooks, rhythmic pacing, and guitar work. Yet these tracks don't feel like shallow retreads old ground or shoe-horned throwbacks left in to appease "purist" fans. They have their own place and their own worth here. Considering these guys basically perfected their brisk, bouncy, angsty pop-punk flavour on 'Roam' and 'Things I Can't Change', to continue to try and recreate that now in [the current year] wouldn't just be a waste of energy, it just wouldn't be the same either. I believe the band themselves know this, hence why they've excitingly branched out on 'Proper Dose' and bring in different influences. And it all works well. This record is most likely going to age better than the other three albums, that's for sure.

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When the band released 'Out Of It' late last year, I was absolutely guilty of writing it off as just another typical Story So Far track whinging about ex-girlfriends. (Although, given how much of their first three records dealt with that topic, can you even blame me?) I thought that lines like "my appropriate opiate takes me out of it" was simply a metaphor of sorts to frame past relationship woes. Turns out, I was pretty darn wrong! For as per that recent in-depth Kerrang interview, the singer's first published interview in five years, this song was frontman Parker Cannon laying his cards right on the table about his drug use and him finally getting past these issues. Topics that are expanded upon with the remainder of 'Proper Dose' no less: the line "Red bottle, white cap" on the record's opening track is a dead give away for what's to come on the other ten songs. Not only does the bright, shimmering album cover reflects this drug haze and shifting mentality in a lot of ways too, but the title - "proper dose" - does so as well.

On the ballad-y 'Upside Down', Parker talks about how "it's all love now". About how he's cutting off the negative aspects of his life and to hopefully be a better man with a much healthier outlook on life. Just look at the 'Upside Down' music video and how it almost reflects the same grassy field from the 'Quicksand' video - releases that are separated by three albums and seven years - and how that heart-broken bitterness that fueled Parker's older lyrics have now been let go of. The singer is definitely taking on a more positive, "love all" approach; one kinda similar to that of Kanye West, just minus the rapping, prolific releases, MAGA hats and mentally ill ramblings. All jokes aside, it's wonderful to see this turn-around in someone's life be detailed across a genuine record like this; all from a man who was often framed as a boisterous dude-bro singer because of incidents like this and this. Incidents that now have much more personal context behind them about the vocalist's headspace during such times and why he maybe acted the way he did. As I said before, this record is the band really maturing. Not just as musicians, but as people too - Parker included - and that's awesome to see.

Parker is the face and voice of this band, and I'm sure that for some fans out there, he IS the band. So for him to open up about his vices - his cough-syrup-pill addiction, their effect upon his mental state, kicking said shit from his system in hope of recovery - and sorting out his shit are all incredibly noble, difficult yet also honest sharings. Because that's what this album is at its core: a "getting your shit together" album, which is its biggest merit. To have one of the most well-known frontmen in pop-punk let the cat out of the bag regarding personal demons of drug use absolutely means something and shouldn't be understated. Take the lyric, "my pessimistic views stem from all the drugs I use" ('Keep This Up'). It doesn't get more direct than that. While this record isn't just about drugs and getting high to feel something - anything - but also about the isolation drug abuse creates, what lead to these addictions and the chasing of highs, it's admittedly disheartening to see many skimming over this when discussing 'Proper Dose'. Both reviewers and general listeners alike. Yet I doubt that's going to discourage the frontman or the band as a whole. They've put it all out there in the music and lyrics for people to dive into if they so wish. As per this segment, I definitely noticed it and I certainly hope that you reading this do too when listening to one of the most interesting records The Story So Far have ever written.

However, while what Parker is singing about here is not only commendable and gripping, how it's often delivered isn't in the same ballpark. Now, harmonizing with oneself, recording double-track takes, and doing your own backing vocal overdubs is all well and good; plenty of singers both more and less talented than he do this and it isn't a bad thing. But man, some of these tuned vocals - and their relationship with the rest of the vocal and instrumental arrangements - are just so grating. They do a disservice to the emotions being shared; feeling rather miss-matched between how his singing sounds and what he's actually singing about. To the point where it's almost a deal-breaker in my mind. For instance, the verses of 'Upside Down', 'Growing On You', 'Take Me As You Please', and the intro of closer 'Light Year'? That's some unpleasant sounding stuff. Which is upsetting, given how decent the rest of those particular songs are too. I feel this is perhaps a conflation of how the vocal arrangements were originally written, how Parker's voice is captured normally, and the work that engineer/producer Sam Pura and mixer Eric Valentine gave the record after the fact. Which is odd, given that the instrumentals - especially the mixing of Ryan Torf's drumming - all sound great, are extremely well balanced and probably the most well-produced that TSSF has ever had.

When Parker is yelling and sitting within his normal range, it's fine! It still works well; it's still palpable for the music and his lyrics. You can see this happen in the busier sections of the record's titular track or in the choruses of 'Keep This Up' or 'Out Of It', where it's more about his vocal energy than anything else. For people who only listen to pop-punk or pop music in general, this tuning matter probably won't be much of an issue. A factor they can glide right past and not think about too much. But for me, as it stands, while it doesn't completely undermine the record's impact, it does affect some of the overall quality.

To be clear, I don't think that auto-tune or pitched effects are some cardinal sin for music. Sometimes, it can work well artistically and can create variety in the vocal takes of a song or a record's production. (For fuck sake, I love synthwave and there can be A LOT of vocal tuning in that genre). And in all fairness, plenty of other pop-punk bands utilize it too in their own music. I also understand that engineering/mixing mentality of wanting to enhance the music and the performances; to make it all gel together tonally to hopefully make the best, most polished product. But in this case, if Parker could not actually reach the pitches required of these songs and their keys, then maybe pitching him up shouldn't have even been attempted. These moments are glaring and honestly took me right out of the forthcoming experience that Parker is so openly expressing; somewhat marring the lyrical content of 'Proper Dose' as well. And that's a fuckin' shame, as there's some fantastic material here. Parker has never been the best singer nor has he had the biggest range, but if his vocal production had been kept at a minimum and left in its natural, rawer state, I feel that would've been better suited towards this album's heart-on-the-sleeve lyricism; communicating everything in a much more authentic way.

While imperfect due to vocal over-production that miss-matches Parker Cannon's lyrical content with how his singing sounds, The Story So Far are really growing up & shedding their youthful pop-punk skin with wider influences and changing dynamics of 'Proper Dose'. Alongside some fucking great songs ('Proper Dose', 'Growing On You', 'Line'), Parker openly discussing his drug addictions, recovery process and gaining a better outlook on life to be a better man is gripping stuff. Honestly, your time with 'Proper Dose' is worth it from that aspect alone.

Proper Dose

Keep This Up

Out Of It

Take Me As You Please

let It Go

Upside Down

If I Fall

Need To Know


Growing On You

Light Year

'Proper Dose' is out now.