If you turned the radio on at all in 2007, chances are you’ve come across the Plain White T’s. After working their way through the suburbs of Chicago and the city’s underground music scene, the Plain White T’s achieved mainstream success with their single “Hey There Delilah,” a saccharine ballad about a relationship that never actually existed. While the relationship was fictional, the success was real; ”Hey There Delilah” was a #1 hit and earned the band two Grammy nominations that year.While they never again achieved the same level of “Delilah” success (though apparently that’s the gift that keeps on giving), they’ve continued to regularly release albums.
Jumping back to Fearless Records, their original label, the Plain White T’s planned to return to their roots with their eighth studio album, Parallel Universe. The album is a pop-punk/’80s synth hybrid full of fun guitar hooks, liberal synth beats, and a driving bass line.
“It’s like we were still in that mentality for a while with the grinding and trying to make it, This album, it’s finally like there’s no pressure to write that big hit single; nobody out there is expecting anything from us. So it’s up to us to deliver, and remind people who we are,” lead singer-guitarist Tom Higgenson explained to Billboard. Thematically, the album takes on love gone wrong, sexual attraction, and a look back at their previous successes. The songs are catchy and filled with hooks–one or two listens mean that you’ll be singing songs you didn’t even realize you knew the words to.
The album opens fairly strong with “Light Up the Room,” a love song that describes attraction to an entrancing woman. More reserved than some of their past fare, “Light Up the Room” uses a heavier bass line and clapping to lead into the choruses. Many of the noteworthy tracks on the album trend towards the ‘80s sound–”Lying About Me and You,” which describes an affair and the tongue-in-cheek party anthem “I Should Be Dead Right Now,” which describes the unfortunate aftereffects of partying too hard. The jaded “Sick of Love” could be the love child of No Doubt’s “Hella Good” and Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger”–do with that what you will.
Unfortunately, any positives to be found on the album are completely overshadowed by the careless misogyny sprinkled throughout nearly every song. There’s a noticeable lack of respect whenever the Plain White T’s address women–something that one would hope they would have grown out of after over twenty years as a band. Songs like “Bonnie I Want You,” (“What you gonna do when the drugs run out/Standing in the street with your tits out/Bonnie I want you”) shows that the doesn’t view the women in these songs as real people; they’re mere plot devices that affect the men in this band, ones who should be grateful for the attention given to them.
Think “Top of the World” is fun and catchy? Too bad it’s ruined by the lyrics “I’ve got the itch by my nose ain’t runny/She’s such a bitch but she thinks I’m funny.” Find “No Tears” surprising since it starts out with lyrics that blame themselves for the demise of a relationship? You’ll be disappointed thirty seconds in, when it ends up gaslighting the woman in question and calling her poison. Some of these lyrics might have flown in early 00s pop punk, but now we’re older, wiser, and tired of this garbage.
Even if you can get past this unfortunate sexism, the rest of the album’s lyrics don’t really shine. While the lyrics for songs like “Light Up the Room” (“Another late night looking at her/All her exes never mattered/She don’t break hearts/They get shattered”) and “I Should Be Dead Right Now” (“Last night meant nothing at all/I don’t see it as a wake up call/Gonna do it all again tonight/Going out, getting myself right/This life got no escape/Go hard ’til I can’t see straight/Sunlight burning my eyes/How the fuck am I still alive?”) are simple, effective, and evocative, many others are lacking. “Lips” sounds like the parody of a boy band track (“I heard you got a new man, new man/Girl why’d you go and do that, do that/Give that boy a little kiss goodbye”). “Low,” which interestingly enough has a bit of a 311 vibe, undoes its decent instrumentation by using the word “low” sixty times throughout the song’s four minute and two second-long run.
Overall, the good on Parallel Universe doesn’t outweigh the bad. The ‘80s-inspired tracks are a highlight for sure; they’re fun, catchy, and filled with Human League-level synth beats. That said, these tracks are easily overshadowed by the blatant sexism, repetitiveness, and straight-up whining that runs through the rest of the songs on Parallel Universe. Higgenson said this album was supposed to remind people of who the Plain White T’s are. Unfortunately, this album doesn’t paint a great picture.