The band called fun. spells its name with a lowercase f and a period, and if they weren’t currently selling a boatload of records on account of a Glee appearance and a Chevy commercial, their questionable use of punctuation would probably be the thing you dislike about them most.
But if Glee has taught us anything, it’s that prejudging is totally uncool, we all deserve to be ourselves (as long as we’re not a King of Leon), and if we write good songs in a forest and nobody hears them, it makes perfect sense to have the country’s first and foremost rainbow coalition of sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, dweebies, and dickheads belt one of them out in front of 10 million true believers.
Talk about your teenage symphonies to God: It doesn’t get much more teenage, symphonic, and godlike than “We Are Young,” fun.’s super-sized ode to the power of positive drinking, and a song that has impressively topped the iTunes charts in both its Glee-ified version and its original form, the way fun. intended.
That a super-catchy pop song has become a big hit is not noteworthy. But the fact that it’s made by the sort of pop band that fun. is, is. To fun., pop isn’t about moving like Jagger, it’s about singing like Mercury and twiddling like Rundgren. So if you like your pop songs made for party-rocking and topped with tits-served whipped cream, look elsewhere.
Which isn’t to say that “We Are Young” — with its booming bass chorus and guest background vocals from Janelle Monae — is closer to classic rock than Sirius Hits 1. Far from it. But listen closer, and somewhere underneath that uplifting chorus you’ll find all the layered vocals, hidden horn blasts, and all the other dorky music-person things that dorky music-people tend to notice.
But what you don’t find in those details is a hit. So let’s take a break to talk about producers and how, like coaches, they often just go about their job, patting the asses that deserve to be patted and saying “atta boy” when the situation calls for it. But sometimes, a coach can get greatness out of decentness, and that starts with a player who’s got the skills but can’t quite get them to work on his own. A player like fun.’s Nate Ruess.
Prior to fronting fun., Ruess was in The Format, a band that initially wrote decent songs that just didn’t do enough to stick out. One such song is the conveniently titled “The First Single,” which you may be familiar with if you once paid a lot of attention to the background music on MTV reality shows, or listened to a lot of rock radio in Phoenix in 2003. Though light-years from groundbreaking, “The First Single” is impossibly catchy despite being rough around the edges, and is probably what you’d be presented with if you asked Siri to help you write a song to accompany the closing montage of the third-best episode of One Tree Hill.
What happened next? Well, to paraphrase James Murphy, Ruess wanted to make something real. He wanted to make an ELO record. So he ditched any lingering emo-pop tendencies and teamed up with guys like Steven McDonald of Redd Kross (!) and Roger Joseph Manning Jr. of Jellyfish (!!) to create Dog Problems. Released in 2006, Dog Problems is arguably the catchiest, most overlooked orchestral pop album of this century, and inarguably the type of record that will get you dropped from your label for having the balls to dream it up in the first place.
Fast-forward to today, and Ruess has turned the basic sound of Dog Problems, the one that once caused his band to get kicked to the curb, into a huge hit with “We Are Young” and its accompanying LP, Some Nights. Only this time around there’s a new addition, the thumping, touchdown-celebration production brought on by Ruess’s new coach, the guy who helped Drake find love and Kanye West celebrate douchebags: hip-hop producer Jeff Bhasker.
Finding pop success in a hip-hop place is nothing new, but in a lot of ways, the sound that fun. and Bhasker conjured up on Some Nights is. Take, for instance, “One Foot,” which pulls off the doubly impressive feat of (a) sounding like Eminem covering Soft Bulletin-era Flaming Lips and (b) not being completely terrible while doing so. Or “All Alone,” which sounds like the monster pop hit Eels never bothered to write.
And those are just a couple of the interesting moments you’ll find on the album that’s currently no. 4 at the Steve Jobs Megastore. (And “We Are Young” is the iTunes top single.) Ruess claims that Some Nights was heavily influenced by old Elton John and new Kanye West, which sounds like some serious shit-my-musician-says, until you hear songs like “Some Nights,” “Carry On,” and “All Alright,” and realize he’s actually onto something. Each one of these songs is catchy enough to take off like “We Are Young,” but I’m pulling for “Why Am I the One,” the least modern-sounding track on the album, and a song that actually sounds like an unearthed Rumors B-side that could be pulled off by the Fleetwood Mac member of your choosing.
Some Nights comes to a close with “Stars,” a spastic mini-epic that kicks off with fireworks, handclaps, and a guitar solo, and ends as something resembling fun.’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In between those bits, Ruess joyfully sings, “There are people on the street / they’re coming up to me / and they’re telling me that they like what I do now!” It’s a ridiculous thing to say in the middle of a song, but in the context of Some Nights, the Glee appearance, and what Ruess has been doing for the last decade, it actually works.
It’s the dorkiest shit you’ll ever hear, and after 40 minutes’ worth of Elton-inspired pop tunes dressed in Kanye clothing, that’s really saying something.