On paper, Bad Books’ latest album II should be a masterpiece. For one thing, the band is primarily made up of two great songwriters – Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra and Kevin Devine – and, after an impressive debut album, it is very easy to see them coming together to create something really special. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Aside from a few standout tracks, II is a major disappointment.
Of course, it’s not all bad. After all, when you get two musicians as talented as Hull and Devine together, they are bound to at least make a few strong songs. The first is the lead single “Forest Whitaker,” which is an all-around great pop song. The simple beat, atmospheric synths, video game guitars, whistled hook, and sad, earnest lyrics all mix fantastically and make for a song that is a little fun, a little sad, and very, very catchy. “It Never Stops” is a song that has a similar lo-fi, classic rock style to many of the album’s weaker tracks but is saved by Bad Books’ use of dynamics and layering of instrumentation. “42” and closer “Ambivalent Peaks” are the two strongest songs on the record due to their impeccable execution. Both are fairly sparse, acoustic driven tracks that layer on elements throughout whether it be harmonized vocals or keys. In the end each one just ends up sounding great and feeling extremely passionate and natural.
However, despite having several enjoyable songs, II mostly falls flat. Sometimes it’s that the band has either created better songs in the same vein on the album itself or in their members’ other projects. “Pytor” is another minimalist acoustic track but isn’t nearly as good as “42” or “Ambivalent Peaks” and the steady alternative rock of the Hull-dominated “Friendly Advice” really just feels like a Manchester Orchestra B-side. Sometimes it’s that the music simply sounds bad to the point of barely being listenable, like it does on “Petite Mort.” During the song, the vocals are barely even audible over the drone of twangy guitars that, frankly, sound terrible. But mostly it’s just that the majority of the record feels too cluttered and lacks any real energy or feeling. “No Reward” and “No Sides” both feel far too reserved and unenergetic to justify their low quality recording style, and neither displays anything even mildly memorable. Opener “The After Party” and “Lost Creek” suffer from poor songwriting, something that shouldn’t have to be said in a Bad Books review. Both songs could be decent enough in theory, but in practice they lack any real dynamics, hook, progressions, or anything else that could have given them some real lasting value.
While II certainly isn’t outright terrible or a record that should diminish anyone’s opinion about the band’s individual members, it is definitely a disappointment. There aren’t enough saving graces to make up for all of the record’s shortcomings, and the album is ultimately not as good as what you would expect from a band that is as talented as Bad Books.