Learning To Love Hanson’s ‘Anthem’

My relationship with Hanson’s sixth studio album, Anthem, has gone through many phases since it was released two years ago. My love for its predecessor, Shout It Out, had been so complete it couldn’t possibly have measured up to that. (Predictably, it didn’t.) And although I knew and admired Hanson’s willingness to change things up for every new release, I at first ungenerously held it against Anthem that it did not retrace the exact footsteps of Shout It Out. Sure, lead single Get The Girl Back sounded a lot like Thinking ‘Bout Somethin, but as Zac Hanson, drummer and youngest brother, had hinted in pre-release interviews, the sound was a little harder this time. On the first several listens, my impression was of an uneven record with generous amounts of bombastic arena rock, in the vein of Kings Of Leon or U2.

That’s still what I hear today, and I don’t think the comparison is particularly original or controversial, unless you are offended by Hanson getting lumped together with such bands (which I kind of am, actually). The difference is that I have now come to like much of what had alienated me at first. I just needed, let’s say, a couple of years to get it properly under skin.

I’ve written fairly extensively about my Hanson listening patterns before. Even Shout It Out has a somewhat flaccid mid-stretch (Use Me Up, These Walls) before the three-pronged rocket* that is Musical Ride, Voice In The Chorus and Me, Myself And I, and on Anthem, I would say things don’t really get going until Get The Girl Back sets in. The opener, Fired Up, is a fist-bumping arena that’s apparently been used as an anthem for the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team, and not to be all too reductive, but it sounds that way, too. I’ve Got Soul is a track I like fine, and it’s insistent funkiness serves both as a statement of intent and a bridge between Shout It Out and Anthem. It’s a good  song, but for the flow of the tracklist, I would’ve maybe moved it out of the opening three, sandwiched as it is between Fired Up and the equally bombastic You Can’t Stop Us.

Over the years I have criticized some fellow Hanson fans for furthering the view that to be a true fan, you pretty much have to embrace not only every album equally, but more or less every song on every album. That approach makes a conversation about favorites a tough proposition, because admitting that you don’t like a song is close to apostasy and a rejection of the band. That said, as I have struggled to make up my mind about Anthem (and 2007’s The Walk before that, another album I found to be uneven and even slightly dull in stretches), I’ve often wondered if it might be my fault. I like this band so much, I’m starting to see where the purveyors of Hansonian infallibility are coming from; at the very least, my soul-searching comes down to trying to understand what it is I don’t get when songs like Fired Up or You Can’t Stop Us don’t quite land with me. I’ve given these tracks more chances to win me over than I have afforded so many others, but they don’t improve.

So, back to the programming of your (or, rather my) Anthem playlist: Skipping the aforementioned duds and moving I’ve Got Soul elsewhere, for me the album really starts with Girl. Mentally, I think of this as the beginning of the middle section, which contains one of the paradoxes of my assessment of Anthem as a whole. While I don’t like the U2/Kings Of Leon-ness of the first couple of tracks, or they way it presents itself in the “whoa whoa” chorus of Scream And Be Free (I detect a tinge of Bon Jovi there), it is that exact impulse which delivers the propulsive punch and almost megalomaniacal vastness to my two favorite tracks, Already Home and Lost Without You. Both have an easily recognizable, rolling electric piano as their signature (which they share with the rollicking Cut Right Through Me, and which give them a slight E Street Band feel), and from there they build to a wall of sound so massive I find it completely irresistible.

In the way they work on me, Already Home and Lost Without You remind me of the otherwise different Carry You There, one of the under-the-radar powerhouses off of Shout It Out. That song starts out slow to the point of being almost bland, but a couple of minutes in, when the gospel element begins to work its magic, it, too, builds to a sound so huge it feels like it could go on forever, but in a good way. It’s a familiar production tactic of Hanson’s, also at play in the catchy but less distinctive Tonight on the back end of Anthem.

On either side of Already Home, we have another couple of songs that I’ve been off and on about over time. Juliet is a Zac-penned and performed song just distinctive enough to not be skippable. In a review I read at the album’s release, Ike’s mid-tempo romantic ballad For Your Love was described as a song only a dedicated Hanson fan could really love, and I’d grant that it’s not a stand-out in this company. But it’s not exactly a filler, either. Perhaps it helps to situate it in Ike’s catalogue. It lacks the urgency of Deeper (Underneath) or Hand In Hand (This Time Around), but it fits quitewell on this album, as a contrast to all the surrounding arena rock. Judging from that one review, this is further indication that I’m inching closer to the Hanson absolutist crowd.

Anthem will never be among my favorite Hanson records, but I’m finally at a point where I can say that I genuinely like it, as opposed to just liking the thought of liking it, which summed up my feelings for most of the previous two years. I think my coming to terms with its strengths and weaknesses rests on two insights: First, that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be good. In comparing it to Shout It Out, I not only held it to a very high standard, I didn’t really allow it to be recognized for its strong points on its own terms. If I was in the business of professional criticism, I guess you would say that I reviewed the album I wanted, as opposed to the one I got. Second, that hangup probably closed me off to the ways in which Anthem actually feels like a natural progression for the band. I’ve mentioned Get The Girl Back, I’ve Got Soul and the similarity in build-up between Already Home/Lost Without You and Carry You There, but I could have mentioned the bluesy Tragic Symphony as well.

From the margins to the mainstream of Anthem, Shout It Out lives on, in a way.

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