‘OK Orchestra” is way better than OK

April 9, 2021

In their fourth album “OK Orchestra,” AJR returns with nothing short of triumph and their traditional “I feel like sh*t, but I’m trying my best” vibes. The album opens up with the signature AJR “Overture”—like in their earlier albums “The Click” and “Living Room,” “OK Orchestra’s” opening track blasts its listeners off with an actually solid compilation/mash-up of all the songs of the album. 

That’s not to say that “OK Orchestra” doesn’t shy away from difficult topics. AJR has always been noteworthy in its song topics about the highs and lows of mental health and young adulthood, and these themes are still very much present in this album. For instance, in the more vulnerable song “My Play,” AJR discusses the relatable feeling of putting on a play for one’s own parents—but underneath it all, there is also a discussion about divorce. Hard-hitting lines like “if love dies, why do I fucking bother?” are difficult enough for listeners to digest in their rawness and helplessness, but then there is the childlike, begging tone of the refrain, “I just really, really, really, really wanna show you my play.” The slower melody itself, along with the melancholy strings and the crooning background vocals, makes the song stand out a bit more in the overall sound of this album. I guarantee this song will force you to pause when it plays. 

Another standout that’ll have listeners pausing—but for very different reasons!—is the stream-of-consciousness-esque song smartly titled “3 O’Clock Things.” This song pieces together all the disjointed, confused but oddly philosophical things that would keep anyone up at 3 a.m.. The beauty of this song, however, is exactly in how seemingly unorganized these thoughts are. Like anyone else up at 3 a.m., the thoughts voiced in this song swing from deeply relatable on the surface level  (“it’s kinda funny how I keep debating whether someone’s shy / or if they hate me”) to deeply sarcastic (“it’s kinda funny how you vote for someone / to vote for someone … and you might end up with someone evil / but you say that he means well”). But the best part of this song is in the bridge, where the words get quiet, the sound reminiscent of something you would hear through speaker phone. AJR contemplates in the bridge that “it’s all a bit cloudy, but there’s one thing I know: that if you’re fucking racist, then don’t come to my show.” After the whole song dithering about the complications of discussing things about society from things like college tuition and the voting system and then politics, the absolute certainty in that line just makes the overall song all the more powerful. 

If we’re still talking powerful songs, another quietly powerful and personal song on the album is “Christmas in June.” With both more modern guitar and drums as well as the swing jazz-like rhythm oddly reminiscent of the white-picket-fence ’50s, this song tiptoes that fragile line of holding onto a career, but also a family life. For all its cheerful sounds, however, the song’s lyrics hit hard and take on a wistful tone, especially in its refrain: “how lucky am I to have two things I love / makes it that much easier to fuck things up / in case I miss it, can we have Christmas in June?” The real tear-jerking element of this song, however, is in its final lines, where the lyrics are sung in quiet breaths. The listeners hear a small intake of breath, followed by, “holy shit, now I’m sitting thinking about what else I’ll miss / darling, if we’re ever gonna have a kid / don’t wanna miss it, can we just have him in June?” The absolute longing and desperate wanting to cling onto these two aspects of life is touching, relatable and simultaneously filled with a youthful energy and yet a more mature worry that makes this song a standout. 

However, the song that perhaps captures the whole of the album’s aesthetics is “Way Less Sad,” which takes AJR’s brand of “feeling kind of confused by the world but we’re trying our best” to another level. Given that after the events of last year and even the events of earlier this year, AJR acknowledges that there are things that make living life a little difficult. Sometimes the bar needs to be set low, and sometimes the best people can do is not necessarily be happy, but just be less sad than they were yesterday, which is the exact message of this song. With its triumphant trumpets and enthusiastic cheers leading up to the chorus, this song comes to its conclusion that “no, I’m not happy yet / but I’m way less sad.” Another powerful lyric, found in the bridge of this song, goes on with “well, I’m not dead yet / so I guess I’ll be alright”—the acknowledgement that the world has not quite swallowed you whole, and therefore you will persist. I can’t even call this an optimistic sentiment, because the beauty of this song is that it proudly acknowledges that it’s not exactly optimistic—it’s just focusing on being less pessimistic, and honestly, that’s progress. The overall message of the album, I think, boils down to just that much: it is progress and it is brave to want to be less sad in a world that wants to grind you to the ground, and AJR encourages all its listeners to be brave and maybe be OK.

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