Sound — 5
Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but even at the time of their humble beginnings, All Time Low seemed destined for the top - maybe it was the way their pop punk significantly plugged the hole where Blink-182 used to be; maybe it was the way frontman Alex Gaskarth's voice gave Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump a run for his money; hell, even the band's name was the perfect amount of self-deprecation for the emo scene they sprouted in. And as the history shows, All Time Low would shoot up from high school hopefuls to the next big thing in pop punk with flying colors: from getting signed with Hopeless Records before graduating high school and hitting #1 in the Billboard Rock charts with their third album, "Nothing Personal," a few years later, to parlaying that success into signing with major label Interscope Records.
But it was at this point when All Time Low began to, inevitably, grow out of their early sound. This branching out had been foreshadowed in "Nothing Personal," but All Time Low's following album, "Dirty Work," would have the band putting more of their eggs into the pop basket and less into the punk basket, which resulted in the age-old divide: those that embraced the band's change in sound, and those that reviled it. In light of this, All Time Low would be more attentive to the latter group - they left Interscope and signed back with Hopeless, and promptly released their fifth album a year later, entitled "Don't Panic." All Time Low framed the goal of that album as being an amalgam of their best qualities throughout their catalogue, but as its title heavily suggests, this album was meant to quell anyone fretting over the possibility of the band completely turning their backs on pop punk.
Like putting an antibiotic in a spoonful of ice cream to get a child to take it, the idea of All Time Low mixing their poppier endeavors within a giant spoonful of tried-and-true pop punk succeeded in winning back most of those upset fans. But now, All Time Low seem unsure in how to continue from there, and with their sixth album, "Future Hearts," they recycle the same approach they took with "Don't Panic," but with less punk ice cream and more pop antibiotic this time around.
With expected shrewdness, they start off strong with the pop punk aspect to ease into things - the uplifting crescendo of the opening song "Satellites" drops into the uncut, fit-to-form pop punker "Kicking & Screaming." After that, the pop flavors start to come in stronger, like the stomp-clap reprise in "Something's Gotta Give" and the added synth parts in "Kids in the Dark," though they're still cut with decent pop-punk choruses and instrumental energy (the variations in Zack Merrick's basslines and the pep in Rian Dawson's drumlines stay strong throughout the album). And while "Runaways" is the first song to invest too much in production value, it's promptly counterweighted with "Missing You," a rich acoustic folk tune that nearly refreshes the organic factor on the album (though the addition of synths and canned strings feels unnecessary), and is then followed by another down-to-earth pop punker, "Cinderblock Garden."
As one can put together, this ebb and flow between pop and pop punk continues throughout the rest of the album: "Tidal Waves" is a pop rock ballad, with a formidable guest verse from Mark Hoppus; and then All Time Low switch back into the pop punk gear with the straightforward "Don't You Go." But eventually, this game of genre pong between pop and punk eventually has to end, and it ends with the point going to pop, only growing more grandiose in the final stretch: "Bail Me Out" featuring Good Charlotte's Joel Madden is another acoustic-driven tune but gets criminally overdressed in production tricks; "Dancing With a Wolf" has the heavy synth augmentations eclipsing the band's instrument elements; and the same goes for the shameless, lighter-waving arena rocker "The Edge of Tonight." The moderately-produced pop punk closer "Old Scars / Future Hearts" brings things back to All Time Low's middle ground of wanting to be both pop rock and pop punk, but after the previous stretch of heavily pop-oriented songs, it almost feels disingenuous to believe that they still want to be punk.
Lyrics — 7
Though Gaskarth's diaries of love and loss have always provided All Time Low with equal amounts of heartwarming and cruel portrayals of relationships, Gaskarth's lyrics have been considerably more negative in the band's last couple of albums. But whether or not it's to balance out that lyrical pH level, the lyrics in "Future Hearts" are generally more positive (with the exception of the spiteful "Dancing With a Wolf" and the poisonous relationship of "Tidal Waves"). Along with the heartwarming scenarios of love Gaskarth offers - like the growing relationship from a one-night stand in "Don't You Go," the lust to abandon the world together in "Runaways," the mutual progression from past troubles in "Cinderblock Garden," and the reverence of emotional support in "Bail Me Out" and "The Edge of Tonight" - Gaskarth also serves up a substantial depression/anti-suicide message in "Missing You" that stands out the tallest and resonates the strongest on the album.
Overall Impression — 5
Whereas "Don't Panic" had its main priority in winning back the band's older pop punk fans while also trying to slowly wean them onto the band's newer style ever so slightly, "Future Hearts" tries upping the pop dosage while still wielding pop punk, which results in a more polarizing album as a whole, with a very interesting but paradoxical dynamic. The pairing of straightforward pop punk songs that All Time Low have mastered with songs that are draped in pop music clichés only make the former type of songs stand out more on the album, and though this helps out the pop punk songs from coming off as stale (since the band have been making that stuff for a decade, now), it in no way convinces listeners that All Time Low is better off moving into bona fide pop music (which is what their growing pop characteristics indicate). Whereas Fall Out Boy just ripped the bandage right off and went full-on pop rock, All Time Low are still struggling to make the full transition. It's not an easy situation to come out of unscathed, but "Future Hearts" only continues to toe the line of compromise between the band's old style and new style, and wishy-washiness will never beckon a satisfying result.