Expectations can mess with your mind as a music fan. We all have favorite bands, but there’s a weird sort of contradiction where those favorite bands are also the ones most likely to disappoint us. Hearing a new record from an unfamiliar artist and having it blow the doors off your mind is a wonderful kind of madness, but it’s also impossible to replicate. Loving an album means accumulating baggage with it—the baggage of years and memories and emotions entwined with the songs. When the next album from that same band comes along, it’s easy to feel let down. Even if the record is good—even if it’s great—expecting it to recapture the magic of the first time is a recipe for disappointment. Virtually every band or artist that has ever made a beloved album contends with this cycle eventually, and it’s part of the reason why most bands don’t last very long. It’s also why maybe the only thing more exciting than having that lightning bolt moment with a new band is hearing one of your favorite artists raise the bar, change the game, and shatter every expectation you had of what their music could sound like, circa right now.
Mother Nature, the fifth LP from The Dangerous Summer, is that kind of album. It takes a band that previously felt like a faded version of its glory days and breathes immense new life into their sound. It makes you excited for this band again, and for what their path might look like going forward. It creates spine-tingling moments of pure catharsis, but in a different way than this band did on their previous beloved albums, 2009’s Reach for the Sun and 2011’s War Paint. And it immediately makes reservations for whole lot of windows-down, sunny-day drives this summer. It’s the right album, at the right time, from a band a lot of people had written off or counted out. And it feels fucking great.
On their early albums, The Dangerous Summer showed an innate talent for crafting songs that wormed their way inside your soul. On “A Space to Grow,” a song from side one of their first record, frontman AJ Perdomo sang about the kind of art that he wanted to make: art “That hangs on your walls/And plays in your heart/It stays in your arms.” It’s a sentiment that would likely have come across as cocky bullshit from the whole generation of arrogant pop-punkers that came after. But AJ was right: his lyrics did become the stuff of tattoos and heartfelt nostalgia trips. This band so quickly mastered the formula for music that becomes a life soundtrack. Their songs were catchy-as-hell summertime jams, shot through with raw, honest lyrics about growing up and falling in love. The Dangerous Summer were the last great pop-punk band because they recognized that you needed both of those things: the razor-sharp hooks and the lyrics that felt like they were really grappling with something. Most bands that came after them maybe had one of those things down, but never both.
Mother Nature recaptures that feeling in a way that The Dangerous Summer haven’t been able to achieve consistently since War Paint. Sure, there were songs along the way that did it: “Catholic Girls,” the thrilling, nostalgic opener from 2013’s inconsistent Golden Record; or “This Is Life,” the aching highlight of last year’s solid but somewhat timid self-titled reboot album. Mother Nature isn’t inconsistent and it sure as hell isn’t timid. Right from the jump, you can tell this album is a big swing. The record opens with “Prologue,” which gradually drowns out a voicemail message—left for AJ, by a friend checking in to make sure he’s okay—in a massive wall of guitars. That sonic punch feeds over to “Blind Ambition,” an unabashedly huge song that serves as the album’s bald-faced mission statement. If there was a problem with last year’s self-titled album—a record of which I am a documented fan—it was that it sounded too small and too thin. The dull production didn’t give the songs the muscle they deserved. That’s clearly not going to be a problem this time around.
Throughout Mother Nature, The Dangerous Summer let what used to make them special shine brightly again. It’s their catchiest album since War Paint, anchored by a batch of pre-release singles—the U2-style stadium sprawl of “Bring Me Back to Life,” the hard-edged howl of “Way Down,” the road-trip-ready “Where Were You When the Sky Opened Up”—that give the record its propulsive momentum. Throughout, the band let the guitars explode again, lending tracks like “Blind Ambition” and the closer “Consequence of Living” their do-or-die stakes. And AJ sings every line like it might be his last, recapturing the emotive urgency of career-highlight tracks like “Never Feel Alone” or “No One’s Gonna Need You More” or “Miscommunication.” “We go under, slip into the unknown, wash our hands of who we were when we were younger/We don’t know why it hurts, we don’t know why it hurts so much,” he sings on “Violent Red.” It’s a song that channels the same stream-of-consciousness feel that defined AJ’s lyrical style on Reach for the Sun, but also one that acknowledges the ten years that have passed since that record. On The Dangerous Summer, AJ sang a lot about the past: about going back home, or wishing all his friends could be together again, or yearning for the unending nights of youth. Here, he’s ready for the next chapter.
That focus on looking forward rather than looking back leads to the most innovative and daring material The Dangerous Summer have ever recorded. Ever since they perfected their sonic template on Reach for the Sun, the band haven’t deviated from it much, beyond maybe pushing in a slightly more aggressive direction here or there. Mother Nature doesn’t quite throw the rulebook out the window: there are still some vintage Dangerous Summer tunes here, like the very War Paint-esque “Virginia.” But there are definitely a few double-take moments too, like when “Starting Over/Slowing Down” morphs from a wistful slice of piano-and-acoustic perfection into a full-on synth jam, or when the moody title track dissolves into the electronic vocoder swell of “Better Light.” I never thought I’d hear elements of The 1975 or Bon Iver on a Dangerous Summer album, but these flourishes work surprisingly well within the band’s wheelhouse. They combine the signatures of AJ’s vocals and melodies with fresh new territory, helping ground the more familiar moments of the album and giving the record a more dynamic arc than we’ve heard from the band before. Even the flashes of experimentation that aren’t quite as overt, like the little electronic blips that open “Is It Real,” feel fresh and inviting. That track plays like a straight-ahead alt-rock hit from some 20-years-gone 1999 classic, like Blue or There Is Nothing Left to Lose. It creates a warm feeling of nostalgia for summers long past, even though it’s brand new.
There’s a line in “Consequence of Living,” Mother Nature’s last song, where AJ sings about “Watching the pictures from my memories breathe again.” Listening to this album feels a bit like that—like reconvening with a long-lost friend from the past and realizing you still have a lot of things in common. For a lot of us, Reach for the Sun and War Paint are more than just albums; they’re a part of who we are, part of our identities, part of our DNA. No artist can make albums like that forever—because lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice; because great art is ridiculously difficult to create; and because expectations are a tricky wall to scale once they’ve been built up and fortified. But every once in awhile, one of those favorite bands from our past comes back and makes a pitch to be a favorite band of our present. On Mother Nature, The Dangerous Summer are re-applying to be your favorite band. And for the first time in eight years, they’ve got a damn good argument for why they should be.