When I first met my wife she introduced me to Billy Talent, and despite her taste in pop punk such as Simple Plan or Sugarcult, I felt inclined to give this band a fair shake. Reason being that Billy Talent seemed to break away from the cut-and-dry pop melodies of its predecessors. Sappy love songs and broken hearts did not saturate the Canadian band’s first release, in fact it held the anger of punk contemporaries while keeping an alternative edge with Ian D’Sa’s guitar and back-up vocals edging to a fast paced forefront (simultaneously donning his signature pompadour in music videos). On first listen, Billy Talent’s eponymous debut came off as hardcore meets punk in a high energy destructive force to reckon with.
This was the early stage, featuring singles “Try Honesty”, “Nothing To Lose” and “River Below” – all of which make for solid songs but also comprise the icing on a much tastier cake. Issues like disgruntled workers turned suicide bombers were not prevalent but appreciated, and so we move forward to the second release, Billy Talent II. The band’s sophomore album could be likened to the turn The Offspring and AFI took in their respective careers: first phase, heavy and passionate; second phase, more relevant and culturally observant but featuring cleaner production; third phase, changing stripes from punk to modern rock.
Billy Talent did in the course of three albums what normally takes other punk bands years to accomplish – they went from hard and passionate to what the band might call experimenting and the fans might call compromising, depending on your perspective. Billy Talent III represents a band which considers itself a success (namely in Canada) and is now trying to reach a broader audience elsewhere with radio-playable songs. I refuse to sling about terms like “sell out” because the whole thing about musicians is that they do their art for a living (it’s the label we blame for commercialization). The problem with trying to reach a broader audience comes down to sincerity, i.e. whether or not when one hears the album we feel like the passion has been compromised to sell more records for a demanding label.
Recently, the album’s first single “Rusted From The Rain” came off very Soundgarden-ish and ’90s alternative. Before that, “Turn Your Back” enlisted Anti-Flag for a very punk-rock atmosphere. Honestly, this left me clueless as to which direction the new album was going in, and then came the end result and all in all it feels forced and somewhat disjointed. There is absolutely nothing wrong with trying on new sounds to reach a wider demographic, but lyrically the band seems to lack a punch that coated songs like the anarchic “Red Flag” or the scream doused “Covered In Cowardice”. Gone are the days of raw power behind every song, and in its place is mediocre songwriting about feeling lost or abused.
Does this mean that the best days of Billy Talent are far behind? Not necessarily, as one could argue the group’s in a temporary state of feeling out a new audience. The unfortunate fact here is during the band’s attempt to expand, they inadvertently traded in quality penmanship. That’s not to say the music is bad, because there are gems present, such as the scathing celebrity critique “Pocketful Of Dreams” or the Salem Witch Hunt storyline in “The Dead Can’t Testify”. Save for these two tracks and the original two singles, there are seven other songs that feel like weighty filler with no real inspiration aside from being more accessible to new fans. That being the case, do they really want their new listeners to perceive them as run of the mill modern rock wannabes?
In defense of Billy Talent, they tried their best it seems to be more enjoyable to others and that’s fine. The downside here is sincerity has been virtually scrapped, considering I once felt like the band represented something whereas now Billy Talent appears to be drifting along, looking for a new muse. Billy Talent III is virtually the band’s answer to Sing The Sorrow, only less successful. While the album is not bad in terms of tangibility, the weight seems to be more quantity than quality and that is a trade off any band should probably avoid. Listeners should seek the band’s previous releases first and then make their own judgments — after all, one is entitled to make up their own mind.
Billy Talent III