It seems that, due to discrepancies in the rates at which they mature emotionally, a point comes at which most adolescent girls conclude—to varying degrees of permanence—that all boys their age are morons. This realization is as much a rite of passage for young women as the causational monosyllabic vocabularies and penis jokes are for young men; casting blame at either would be like blaming tigers for being too carnivorous. However, sometime this century, someone with fine-tuned industry smarts saw in this window of disequilibrium a marketing opportunity: Repackage emo, originally conceived as an underground catharsis for disenfranchised young males, as a romantic mainline venture and market it to teen girls dying for a little sensitivity. Unfortunately, the reverse happened; the new emo instead attracted an even wider horde of young gentlemen, eager to reveal the deepest recesses of their hyper-romantic souls to a fairer sex that remains only moderately impressed by the gesture. As a result, culture is now rife with groups like Plain White T’s and Boys Like Girls—acts that no one seems to truly love but still manage to be wildly popular. Behold, Secondhand Serenade.
Secondhand Serenade is the artistic vision of John Vesely, and anyone that’s heard 2008’s adult-contemporary grand slam “Fall For You” blowing up the PA at his local Petco ought to have a decent grip on it: Like many emo-tinged acoustic acts to strike gold in the Myspace age, Vesely makes sad music devoid of sorrow. Every song seems to dwell upon 1) the collapse of a current or former relationship, or 2) his doe-eyed fantasy about a potential future one. His new EP, Weightless, is his latest installment in this canon. A back-to-basics affair following 2010’s moderately expansive Hear Me Now, its attempts to expose emotional vulnerability only serve to expose methodological ones: His songs are catchy, but they’re catchy in the way that schoolyard taunts are catchy, a trait surely accelerated by his interminable whine. He reveres traditional song form, but he’s never in command of it; the EP’s most accomplished piece is “Animal,” a Neon Trees cover founded on the premise that reducing a rock song to a sullen piano ballad instantly infuses it with emotional authenticity. Instead, it plods. This is unfortunate, because Vesely has something legitimate to get off his chest; in 2008, he divorced the woman that supposedly inspired him to become a songwriter in the first place. To that end, accusing him of being joyless seems heartless. To another, though, what inspired his heartache is largely irrelevant; what matters are his poor sales tactics.
There are brief moments of redemption on Weightless: the handclaps on “Animal” are appealing headphone candy, and “Never Too Late” has a chorus that would be massively moving if sung by, say, Taylor Swift. “Let Me In” gallops along on the thud of its bass drum like a self-conscious cousin to Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister,” and this is meant to be more of a compliment than it appears. But ultimately, Vesely comes across as the kind of guy who claims that he’d rather be unhappy pining over the girl of his dreams than be happy with someone else. “I don’t deserve to tell you that I love you/There’s nothing in this world I dig above you,” he emotes in “Never Too Late,” just before proclaiming that he’s “dead inside.” Fairly, perhaps tweens conditioned to the emotional vacuity of boys their own age view expressions this banal as raw and expository. But to the rest of us, Vesely remains more like youth culture’s answer to Billy Joel, who wrote songs like “She’s Always A Woman” which exist as romantic barometers by which frustrated soccer moms lament their husbands’ inabilities to understand them as well as a pop star. In the right niche, his character is the boyfriend of every girl’s dreams; in the wrong niche, his character is the boyfriend that no one’s surprised got dumped.