The first wick was lit once Mutiny! took off as an unexpected hit, a hardcore-infused pop punk diamond in the rough that kick-started the meteoric rise of California’s Set Your Goals. Despite rough-around-the-edges vocals and understated production value, the album rallied together a core group of fans, who for better or for worse, deem it one of the best pop punk records of the decade.
Still riding high off the flame of their promising debut, Set Your Goals released This Will Be the Death of Us, a new spin on their familiar sound, building up their repertoire with strong cameos from pop-rock darling Hayley Williams of Paramore and grizzled veteran Chad Gilbert of New Found Glory. The album split their fan base in two factions: those who enjoy the fun summer vibe and poppy vocals of “The Fallen” and “Summer Jam,” and those who vehemently yearn for the band to stick to their hardcore guns, a la “Gaia Bleeds (Make Way For Man.)” The hype machine kept a-rollin’, and even with its divisive nature, This Will Be the Death of Us grabbed the torch from Mutiny! without even the smallest flicker of the band’s bright future.
On third album Burning at Both Ends, however, Set Your Goals’ sound is burned out.
Most songs on the band’s newest effort fall flat just because they’re a twinge of lyrics away from being copied-cut-pasted rehashes of songs listeners have already heard. “Cure For Apathy” has Matt Wilson at his whiniest best, his pseudo-soaring vocals grating against what is otherwise a well-written chorus. The balance of singing duties shared by Wilson and co-singer Jordan Brown is skewed, especially since Brown has a better grasp of his range and Wilson is too busy trying to be a knock-off of New Found Glory’s Jordan Pundik. “Happy New Year” and “Exit Summer” take root in emo territory, and lack the youthful exuberance that played a pivotal role in the band’s wheelhouse.
That’s not to say that the album doesn’t have its bright spots. “Start the Reactor” is one of the most fun songs in the band’s catalog, with big guitars from Daniel Coddaire, a song structure littered with enormous hooks, and huge gang vocals. “Last American Virgin” boasts a giant chorus and showcases Brown’s chops on the microphone.
But the album starts to really lose its footing when Set Your Goals expects listeners to be able to empathize with the struggles of tour life and the woes of being in a fairly successful band. It’s hard to get behind numbers like the angsty skate-punk reminiscent “Illuminated Youth” and blisteringly drum-driven “London Heathrow” just because the lyrics aren’t relatable unless you’re one of the six guys who make up the band.
The most striking departure from tradition is Set Your Goals’ foray into a sudden obsession with the 1980’s. “Certain” opens with a synth riff that sounds like a take on The Pixies’ “Where is My Mind” and sounds like an anachronistic mess, juggling ill-fitting 80’s pop sensibilities and instrumentation with a punk ethos. “Product of the 80’s” is a slap in the face to the band’s most dedicated fans and sounds like a desperate attempt to write a surefire hit. All hardcore influences are recklessly abandoned for cheesy movie quotes and outdated pop culture references in their poppiest track yet.
There’s a bitter irony in the 80’s subplot of Burning at Both Ends, because unless Set Your Goals can recapture the magic of their first two efforts, they’ll fade out of the fickle pop punk genre vogue into a thing of the past as well.