When I first got to college, it seemed like everywhere I turned there was a different random kid with giant gauges in his ears and an Armor for Sleep hoodie on his shoulders. I figured if I had any chance of being considered cool, I'd better get into this new band, and I soon came to enjoy Dream to Make Believe and, to a lesser extent, What to Do When You Are Dead. A guilty pleasure, if you will, but some of their stuff reminded me of latter-day HomeGrown, whom I'd followed through their emo phase. Hard as I've tried to remain as cool as those kids with gauged ears, this one just doesn't really do it for me.
Now I'm not one to devalue the tremendous pressure that comes from a major label debut. An effort that doesn't captivate the masses and resonate thoroughly can mean failure no matter how critically received, and artistic freedom often seems co-opted by an either conscious or subconscious drive for mainstream appeal. Here Armor for Sleep has put their major label budget to use on Smile for Them, with production rich enough to cover all the bases of popular rock music, from the hard-edged emo for which they were signed in "Smile for the Camera," blippy electronic beats on "Hold the Door" and "My Saving Grace," and warm, textured acoustic guitars in "Lullaby."
The central lyrical theme is fairly stimulating at first encounter: Immersed in a sterile, fictional reality, the young protagonist rejects the plastic, planned world of hallow celebrity and Hollywood safety (see also "The Truman Show"). An engaging topic matter, no doubt, though it should be considered that the New Jersey-based band flew out to Los Angeles to record this album for Warner Brothers records and under the professional supervision of industry hitmaker Crush Management. There's certainly nothing wrong with all that, but compared to say, a band that doesn't have those amenities, the complaints waged in Smile for Them may ring empty. For what they are though, Ben Jorgensen has done a fairly solid job, as highlighted in one of the edgier tracks, "End of the World": "Tidal waves are gonna swallow your town alive / Terrorists are gonna poison all our skies / Bodies are gonna wash up on the beach / Hell is gonna bring your parents to their knees / And when you escape, I'll stay / I'm so tired of running away."
To be fair, there's some pretty good songs here that remind me why I enjoyed Armor for Sleep in the first place. "Chemicals" is aggressive and passionate, never hitting that dramatic emo crescendo the way many of the other tracks on Smile fall victim to. "Post-hardcore" is what a proponent would call it, though to me it seems more like "diet punk." The previously mentioned "Smile for the Camera" leads off the album, which is probably a good thing since it's the strongest track on the album and briefly postpones the disappointing realization that Smile for Them is essentially a fairly standard emo-rock effort for the mainstream. Too much of the music is excessively polished, drawn out to uncomfortable lengths, and ironically melodramatic to reality show levels. One need look no further than the over-the-top "Hold the Door" for a perfect example of everything that's wrong with this album (including the inexplicable electronic beats randomly interspersed!).
I don't think this is the end of Armor for Sleep. They're a talented and literate band who have helped develop the genre past breakups and bad clichés and bring a sense of external awareness that hasn't really been present. If anything, this was Armor for Sleep jumping at their chance to hit it big in the mainstream, and sacrificing their better aspects in the process.
For the math wiz: (12 tracks / 6 good to very good) + (bonus point for the lyrics of "My Saving Grace" - points for the execution of "My Saving Grace") = 2, or ½ of the total, which = 5/10 or 2.5/5 stars.