After hitting the national stage last fall with their smash melancholy hit “Say Something” (with an added push from Christina Aguilera to nudge them even further into the spotlight), pop duo A Great Big World now have the chance with their debut album Is Anybody Out There? to show whether they have the musical chops to carry them over the one-hit-wonder hump.
On first listen, I feel like they’ll definitely have more than one hit. But as to longevity beyond this first album—honestly, the jury is still out on that one. There are signs of promise on this album, but there are also several moments where Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino aren’t doing themselves any favors.
On the one hand, the one thing they do that got them attention in the first place—namely, piano-driven pop—they do quite well. In their favor, Is Anybody Out There? is certainly not driven only by “Say Something” (though both versions—with and without Xtina—appear on the album). There are several other moments where AGBW shine—for example, in hook-driven tunes like “This Is the New Year,” “Already Home” and opening cut “Rockstar.” And in my opinion, “There Is An Answer” is the strongest cut besides “Say Something” itself. In these moments, you can definitely the see the promise of a future for this band.
On the other hand…the duo have taken a huge risk in trying to position themselves in what I’ll call a “Broadway pop” subgenre. Simply put, AGBW seem like they are trying to capitalize on the recent popularity of the theatrical pop of the band fun. and the television show Glee, spun with a bit of Rufus Wainwright cabaret for flavor. To make matters worse, there are far too many moments where the lyrics are so direct and “on-the-nose” that they come off as soapboxy. In these moments, unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to take them seriously. The “la la las” in “Land Of Opportunity” sound like the Muppets came out of nowhere to sing background vocals, while “Cheer Up!” could have been a hit on Barney & Friends, so sugary-sweet it sets one’s teeth on edge. (“Cheer up, ‘cause nothing really matters when you look up into outer space.” What are we, ten years old?) And while the album’s most socially conscious moment, “Everyone Is Gay,” is well-intended as pop’s answer to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love,” the over-the-top theatrical vibe and Queen-esque ending actually make the song sound satirical, detracting from the message rather than bringing it home.
Ultimately, on Is Anybody Out There?, A Great Big World have taken some bold steps to distinguish themselves in an oversaturated pop market, and for that, they deserve props. It simply remains to be seen whether this will be remembered as a huge risk that paid off or a terrible tactical error. For all the hope I placed in this band with “Say Something”—I have my doubts.