You’ve got to hand it to Mutemath: they stick to their guns. The New Orleans alternative rock band has maintained a strong but niche fanbase for over 10 years, and yet they have never once made an attempt to be anything other than themselves. Even on 2015’s danceable “Vitals,” which found the group finally diving headfirst into their fascination with electronic flare, Mutemath did not abandon their signature sound. It was reminiscent of 2011’s “Mylo Xyloto,” on which Coldplay explored a more mainstream style seemingly without commercial motivation. So while “Vitals” was a triumph, it would have been reasonable to expect Mutemath to sacrifice their character and finally make a leap for the mainstream on their follow-up. Pair that with an extensive summer tour alongside the Grammy-winning Twenty One Pilots in 2016, and the group was surely headed in the commercial direction of Coldplay’s “A Head Full Of Dreams.” Mutemath’s new album “Play Dead” defies all of these expectations, and for that alone it is a success.
The album kicks off with “Hit Parade,” the lead single and perhaps strongest track. Frontman Paul Meany has described the song as “the first song we’ve ever recorded that sounds like what Mutemath set out to sound like from the very beginning.” It’s hard to disagree: “Hit Parade,” like many of the tracks on “Play Dead,” is a soaring amalgamation of Mutemath’s first four albums. It rocks like their self-titled debut, jams like their sophomore effort “Armistice,” grooves like their third LP “Odd Soul” and implements the electronic flares mastered on “Vitals.” And the added component of 80’s Yes-esque harmonies and synths is more than welcome.
Second single “Stroll On” follows two tracks later, and it’s almost as good. Separating itself from “Vitals” as more of a rock piece, it still applies the electronics with full force. The track introduces a concept that is repeated several times throughout the album: the last minute or so is a showcase of Mutemath playing with bleeps and bloops more effectively than ever. These outros, which also show up on “Break The Fever,” “Placed On Hold,” “Everything’s New” and “Achilles Heel,” are a brilliant discovery for Mutemath, as they allow the group to deliver the type of rock songs that made them famous while exploring their electronic obsession in a purposeful way.
“Play Dead” isn’t without its flaws. The album is clearly strongest when it beautifully blends Mutemath’s rock and electronic sides. When it doesn’t do this, we are left with some mediocre rock songs, such as “Pixie Oaks” and “War.” Additionally, “Achilles Heel” is a confusing and ineffective experiment in which the group tries to insert a hip-hop beat while changing nothing else. Another disappointing aspect of “Play Dead” is that it feels like a collection of songs rather than a cohesive album. Most of these songs are phenomenal on their own, but track ordering does not seem to have been a priority. Cohesion is something that has come to be expected of a Mutemath album following the one-long-song style of their debut and the emotional journey of “Vitals,” and it is sorely missed on “Play Dead.”
That said, Mutemath certainly know how to write an album closer. “Marching To The End” joins the league of the group’s previous LP finales as an emotional ballad that builds to one last climax. What’s even more exciting about this track is its use of strings molded by electronics to create a unique and experimental drama. After nine songs that fully realize their characteristic sound, this tenth track points in a new direction that one can only hope the group pursues.
Mutemath’s fifth full length could have been their launch to the commercial mainstream. The group could have been the next Coldplay or Twenty One Pilots. Instead, they made “Play Dead,” their most Mutemath album yet, and they’re all the better for it.