Album Review: Aerial – Why Don’t They Teach Heartbreak In School?

Pop music is timeless, or at least the best pop music is.  While the fads come and go, and the gimmick songs will sound ridiculous less than a year after they tap into the cultural zeitgeist, good pop music will endure forever, because it resonates in the best parts of us.  Pop music is supposed to be warm, inviting, and fill us with a sense of contentment.  These days, the only place you can find such music is in the underground world of power-pop, a situation that is akin to back-alley balloon animals.  It’s shameful that fun and catchy music is so hard to come by, but you can’t always accuse the public of having good taste.

Timelessness plays into Aeiral’s new album, their first after a ten year hiatus.  Taking that much time off between records would normally doom a band to dated irrelevance, but power-pop never ages, so it’s as though Aerial was never gone.  “Why Don’t They Teach Heartbreak In School” sounds like it could have been recorded anytime since Big Star pioneered power-pop, and that’s a very good thing.

“Cartoon Eyes, Cartoon Heart” opens with the swirling, chiming guitars that you would expect, the perfect blend of gritty rock power and pure saccharine beauty.  Nailing the sonics is an important part of setting the right scene, and the guitar tones on the record are exactly what they should be.  When the sweet harmony vocals kick in for the chorus, it’s pop nirvana, a muscular yet sugary concoction that bounces along with an irresistible melody.

The title track ventures back to school for its metaphor, asking a question that is a more interesting take on Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is”, complete with the observation that “I never quoted Shakespeare when trying to impress”, as though such literary aspirations would even be considered impressive anymore.  The song works, because unlike a lot of others that try to use adolescence as a means of getting the point across, the song doesn’t reduce everything to the level of a teenager.

While I appreciate lyrical acuity, it’s a small part of what makes power-pop so endearing.  This music is all about big hooks and sweet harmonies, and Aerial comes through in spades.  A song like “Japanese Dancer” is the kind of addictive pop song that Weezer has been trying and failing to write for the last decade, while “Every Word You Say” reminds me of Cheap Trick’s criminally underrated “Rockford”, with shimmering guitars and a hook that can melt the heart of even the iciest critic.

Well placed in the middle of the record is “Madeline It’s Me”, which breaks up the flow with acoustic guitars, which have always been a favorite of mine.  A small bit of diversity like that goes a long way towards keeping an album from becoming too one-note, even one that runs under forty minutes as this one does.  It goes to show that Aeiral knows exactly what they’re doing.

The mood shifts a bit through the middle of the record, with the tempos being brought back a touch, and the mood becoming a bit more reflective, but that only plays into the strengths of Aeiral’s harmonies.  “Dear Anna” has an undercurrent or somberness, but the hook is every bit as strong and memorable as the more upbeat numbers that open the record.  In some respects, the added emotional heft of the subject matter gives the melody more impact, as the bittersweet is often the most stinging of all emotions.

Perhaps the best is saved for near the end, as “Formative Years” is a propulsive burst of pop with a huge hook and stacked harmonies that feels like a throwback to the times when this kind of music could capture the hearts and minds of a wider audience.  That’s the biggest shame of listening to an album like this; knowing that the musical climate is working against music that has everything going for it.  Aerial has made a fantastic album that I have to believe would appeal to most anyone who has ever liked pop music, but demographic chasing has rendered them irrelevant to the mainstream.  This is where my distaste for the mainstream comes from.  While songs that don’t feature a real instrument or unaltered voice are dominating the charts, a band like Aerial is making better pop than any of them.  “Why Don’t They Teach Heartbreak In School?” is a damn fun power-pop record, and in a more just world would signal the beginning of Aerial’s successful second act.

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