Sound — 4
John Vesely's first footsteps in the music world consisted of wielding a bass guitar for a handful of local bands, but, as the story goes, he decided to pick up a guitar and become his own musician when he met his wife, naming his solo project Secondhand Serenade. With his debut album, "Awake," being a collection of love songs inspired by his wife simply composed by only his guitar and voice, things would take a turn when they divorced in 2008. That would result in his sophomore album, "A Twist in My Story," being directly inspired by his personal tragedy; not to mention the fact that it was panned for being a copycat of emo champions Dashboard Confessional (the name Secondhand Serenade was now all too fitting). His third album, "Hear Me Now," continued that lackluster derivativeness, though it would still manage to chart the best of all on Billboard. Since then, Vesely's career has been on the more reserved side: on the bad side of things, he was dropped from Glassnote Records, the label that had signed him in the first place; but on the better side of things, Vesely found himself in a new relationship with singer/songwriter Veronica Ballestrini, and that's likely the foremost inspiration for Secondhand Serenade's fourth album, "Undefeated."
Right off the bat, the most noticeable change in things is the fact that "Undefeated" contains the brightest emotion compared to any other Secondhand Serenade album, which, even outside of the critics speaking out against the static emo-ness of Secondhand Serenade's previous albums, is a welcome change of pace. Though the opening "Undefeated" first sets that tone with a contemporary pop uplifter, the real next step of Vesely's sound is heard soon enough in "Shake It Off," and the one of three duets with Ballestrini, "La La Love," where the music literally bears a sunny disposition with a beach folk style of up-strumming guitar licks, hand drums, and gentle quivers of electric guitar in the background. This is further shown in "Back to the Old Days" and "Come Back to Me," but ultimately, these vibes feel derivative of notorious beach rockers Jason Mraz and James Blunt, or even the more organic side of Bruno Mars - and the plot thickens to a damning extent when the chorus melody of "La La Love" is borderline plagiaristic to Mraz's "Everything Is Sound."
Not much else has changed in Secondhand Serenade's sound otherwise. Old habits are proven to die hard in Vesely's case, because even despite the solid attempt for happier music, he dips back into the emo playbook with "Heart Stops (By the Way)," "I Don't Wanna," "Price We Pay" and "Nothing Left to Say"; it still sounds as much a Dashboard Confessional clone as before, but with Dashboard not making music anymore, perhaps that's enough of an excuse to fill the void. Vesely also suffers, once again, from very unimaginative songwriting, with nearly every song traveling in a very neat format with the same instrumental arrangements and expected crests. If there's any component that has real mood to it, it's the basslines - everything else just feels like a paint-by-numbers process of composition, the same struggle that's been going since "A Twist in My Story."
Lyrics — 6
In the same fashion as Vesely's change of mood musically, his lyrics also show more positivity to them, though in a Taylor Swift-ian way, Vesely's consistent harping that he's moved on from past heartaches subconsciously shows otherwise. The epiphany voiced out triumphantly in "Undefeated" that leads the album would seem to close the book on all the lamenting of failed love in Vesely's earlier material, but soon enough, Vesely's old self starts peeking back into the spotlight: "I Don't Wanna" and "Price We Pay" are both about Vesely's opting to stay in his draining relationship, whereas "Fly By" and "Nothing Left to Say" pull back towards Vesely's realization and acceptance of his former relationship needing to end, and even the humble beginnings of his music career in "Back to the Old Days" is a picture rooted back when Secondhand Serenade was first inspired by his then-wife.
"Fly By" also bridges the gap between his moving on from his former lover to his new lover ("today I'm not alone/today there's someone else calling my phone") which is the other main topic of the album, and the more jubilant of the two. Vesely sings about being head-over-heels in love again in "Let Me In," and his lyrics about the carefree and in-the-moment fun of a fresh relationship in "Right Kind of Crazy" are the first in a while, if ever, where Vesely isn't bound to the past. And of course, Vesely takes a moment with Ballestrini to exclusively sing about their love in "La La Love," which packs the track to the brim with cutesy love-isms that may tread into cheesy territory, but damn it all if it isn't catchy.
Overall Impression — 4
At face value, "Undefeated" does feel new, and certainly makes the biggest jump into a different sound than any other Secondhand Serenade album, but it doesn't take too much digging to figure out that little has actually changed; and it's duly disappointing that the new style tried on this album is just as derivative as their old style. Whether it's Vesely's lyrical content that's still primarily invested in his heart scars, or his drab and unadventurous songwriting, "Undefeated" unfortunately doesn't shake off the plights that ailed Secondhand Serenade before.