The Armed’s music may be perpetually disorienting, but it’s no longer purposefully misleading. After operating anonymously for years, the band seemed to pull back the curtain slightly on 2021’s ULTRAPOP, embracing total sincerity as much as the malleability of genre and the potential of pop accessibility. Perfect Saviors continues down this path, billed – not by publicists but the band’s own Tony Wolski – as a “completely unironic, sincere effort to create the biggest, greatest rock album of the 21st century.” As they peel back the veil, the Armed have mostly managed to tackle the problem of promoting the artists’ individual identity by focusing on the collective, which is, in large part, sonic. They’re still poking fun at many of the institutions they exist within or model success after, so I can’t tell you that Perfect Saviors is in fact entirely devoid of irony, or that it’s the biggest, greatest rock album of the century. (“The name is incredibly ironic,” Wolski has admitted, and the contradiction is precisely the point.) But I can tell you that it’s definitely the Armed‘s attempt to engineer what that might sound like, meaning that even their most accessible-sounding effort is still rooted in the thrill of ambivalence, favouring nuance over immediate gratification – or, indeed, mystery.
Though Perfect Saviors is ultimately too human to be the biggest or the greatest of its kind, that doesn’t make it any less of an exhilarating experience. Unlike ULTRAPOP, it doesn’t seek to magnify the simultaneous beauty and chaos of excess so much as recognize their inherent juxtaposition, as on the opener ‘Sport of Measure’, which begins with a downright sentimental proposition: “I’ll just go out and stare at the sky/ Put my dreams on green screen.” Then the tenderly organic instrumentations gets twisted by thundering electronics that Mark Guiliana’s drumming somehow manages to rip through, hinting at a violent kind of fantasy. Its sister song, lead single ‘Sport of Form’, summons the sort of pummeling noise more prevalent on ULTRAPOP before quieting down to a paradoxically comforting chorus of “Does anyone even know you? Does anyone even care?” On a record whose contributor list includes Sarah Tudzin, Patrick Shiroishi, Josh Klinghoffer, and Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Julien Baker’s vocal part here is easily the most identifiable guest presence, turning an otherwise downcast moment into pure catharsis. It also makes you wonder how the Armed’s sound might have opened up had Alan Moulder’s mix left a bit more space for Wolski’s own voice.
ULTRAPOP centered around the fusion of the Armed’s maximalist brand of hardcore and their knack for melodic pop hooks, rendering their approach on 2018’s Only Love more transparent and conceptual. Sonically, the new album can be seen as part of a trilogy, but to the extent that it’s concerned with the subverting genre at all, it’s got less to do with hardcore or pop music than arena rock, which provides the perfect framing for its commentary on the gamification of a culture where fame is the only path to success. Though they might emulate the radio-friendly formula a bit too well, they also know exactly when to have the frayed edges show. The sparkling groove of ‘Everything’s Glitter’ dissipates just in time for the song’s most blistering line: “There’s drama on my tortured brow/ Am I caricature?” The St. Vincent-indebted ‘Modern Vanity’, meanwhile, slows things down so that its sarcasm – targetting “pretend kings with plastic lives in big clone houses” – is even more overt.
Perfect Saviors doesn’t have as many incendiary moments as ULTRAPOP, but it’s a little looser in playing with sounds beyond its particular aesthetic framework. Yet that experimentation feels intentional, too. The pairing of ‘Liar 2’ and ‘In Heaven’ – the most danceable and spare songs on the record, respectively – towards the end of the LP offers the kind of emotional resolution that could justify the Armed taking an entirely different direction on whatever comes next. ‘Liar 2’ is the song that most heavily relies on the contrast between musical form and lyrical content, painting its modern, shared desperation in the realm of delusion. But the glass finally breaks on ‘In Heaven’, which has nothing to hide beneath its acoustic presentation. With Matt Sweeney on guitar, it’s a gently heartbreaking song, elevated by another stunning performance by Julien Baker. “Love and hate/ Blurring in the middle,” they harmonize. In this endless battle, no side comes out victorious. But the Armed find tenderness and beauty in that monstrous, blurry middle – between success and failure, hope and despair – and Perfect Saviors is their imperfect attempt to champion it.