Everyone has their story about a piece of art that they discovered at just the right time in their life. Neotheater, the third album released by the band AJR, is one of those art pieces for me. Neotheater was released in April 2019—coinciding perfectly with an incredibly transitional time of my own life. I had never hard of AJR before my sister played “Next Up Forever” in the car that summer. When I heard those lyrics for the first time, my mind was blown. In the following months, I dove into AJR’s catalogue, and soon I had a whole new subset of comfort music.
While I gravitated towards their second and third albums, The Click and Neotheater respectively, Neotheater claimed a special place in my heart. The themes of the album, such as growing up but not knowing where you’re going, resonated deeply with me as I dealt with changes in my own life. With frank and vulnerable lyrics paired with an inventive musical style, AJR’s Neotheater perfectly encapsulates the chaos and harmony of learning who you are as you emerge into adulthood.
To showcase the power of their songwriting, I’m going to do a recap of Neotheater, saying a little bit about each song and what it means to me. I'll also include some of my favorite lyrics and a link to each song on YouTube.
“Someday they’ll be talking about me
Right now they’re just walking around me
My God, are you growing without me?
Somebody help me, somebody help me”
The first song, Next Up Forever, perfectly sets the stage for what Neotheater’s all about. It’s about standing on the precipice of a new chapter in your life: You see the people years older than you go through it, understanding that you’re up next. You know it’s coming, but all the expectations and uncertainties ahead still scare you.
“So thank you
For coming to my birthday party
I am one minute old today
And my minute’s been going great
And I hope it stays that way”
When you’re an adolescent, you are constantly being told that there are so many things you don’t know about the world. Then, all of the sudden, you’re eighteen, you’re twenty-one, you’re twenty-two, and you’re an adult expected to know what you’re doing and where you’re going. Birthday Party is a portrait of an idealistic young adult, before their innocence is challenged by the "real world." The facetiously hopeful lyrics hint at disillusioned optimism about the state of the world. But will that optimism and idealism survive the trials of adulthood?
“100 bad days made 100 good stories
100 good stories made me interesting at parties
Yeah, no I ain’t scared of you
No, I ain’t scared of you no more”
100 Bad Days brings the narrative right from naive optimism into the harsh understanding that adult life is full of horrible, bad days. However, there is still hope. There’s always another day. I find so much comfort in the chorus, because I love the idea of facing down everything that could possibly go wrong, and fearlessly saying, “No, I ain’t scared of you no more.”
“Oh no, don’t through out my Legos
What if I can’t let go?
What if I come back home, back home?
Can we keep my Legos at home?
‘Cause I don’t wanna move out,
I don’t wanna move on”
Don’t Throw Out My Legos is about the back-of-the-mind doubt and fear of the unknown that comes with moving out and moving on. Sometimes we’re so excited to grow up and become independent, only to realize that independence often comes hand-in-hand with loneliness. In this song, the Legos represent childhood, the material items we leave behind, and the conflicting desires to leave and to stay.
So if I break my face
It ain’t my darkest day
My face is just my face
Break My Face is one of the more ambiguous songs on Neotheater, which is probably why it isn’t my favorite. I still enjoy it, though. I interpret it as an ode to the near-invincibility towards chaos that comes with youth.
“I think I probably wasn’t in love with you
I think I probably loved the idea of you
And though I may be missing the feel of you
I think I probably wasn’t in love with you”
Honestly, every line of this song gets to me. Turning Out, Pt. II is about acknowledging that growing up takes time, and it’s one of the most mature and self-aware songs on the album. It’s saying goodbye to an outgrown relationship, when the person still means a lot to you. It’s moving on with as much as respect and honesty as possible. It’s understanding that you aren't ready for a relationship yet, but you will be someday.
“Oh my, oh my God the entertainment’s here
Everything is suddenly amazing here
Sit back man, relax man
Sit back man, don’t make plans”
Oftentimes, when the world we live in becomes overwhelming, we seek out distraction by occupying our minds with digital and entertainment media. The Entertainment's Here is about the reprieve of putting in your earbuds and hitting “play" on your favorite album, podcast, or TV show, using it to chase away depressed or anxious thoughts. Also, those trumpets used between verses are awesome.
“I’ve been so good, I’ve been helpful and friendly
I’ve been so good, why am I feeling empty?
I’ve been so good, I’ve been so good this year
I’ve been so good, but it’s still getting harder
I’ve been so good, where the hell is the karma?”
After the distraction described in The Entertainment’s Here wears off, the anxious feelings previously repressed take center stage in Karma. Set in a therapy session, the singer pours their heart out about all of their insecurities. They’re reaching out for an answer, wondering why they are still struggling with mental health. Karma is especially relevant to today’s young adults, a generation that discusses and prioritizes mental health care. I find it really relatable because there have been so many times where I felt like I was doing everything I was supposed to do, but with little to no results. Like many people, I thought if I did everything right, I would be living the life I pictured I would have. But that’s not the case. In fact, that’s almost never the case. Karma captures all of these raw and vulnerable feelings perfectly. The bridge is absolutely genius. It truly is a masterpiece. If you’re going to listen to one song from Neotheater, this should be it.
“Okay, people laugh at my jokes now
It’s so strange to have a bit of success”
This is the one song I really don’t connect with on this album. It might be because it’s about the commercialization of the music industry and what “selling out” means, and I can’t relate to that. Also, I didn’t immediately get the reference to “Beats by Dre,” which might have also been a source of disconnect.
“Frankly I feel insane
But you say you feel the same
And suddenly it’s like
Hey, I’m not crazy!
‘Cause when you talk it’s like
Wow, I’m not crazy!”
Wow, I’m Not Crazy is about the joy of finding someone who gets you. It’s about the incredible phenomenon of instant friendship when you sit down with someone new and you’re suddenly able to talk for hours. Amazingly, this person automatically gets you. They like the same things you do, and they’re the same type of weird you are. They make you feel heard and validated. I've been very, very lucky to experience this magical moment a few times, and Wow, I'm Not Crazy always reminds me of those special people in my life.
“It really doesn’t seem like there’s anyone for me
But dear Winter, I hope you like your name
I’m hoping that someday I can meet you on this earth
But shit, I gotta meet your mom first"
The penultimate song of Neotheater is a ballad of loneliness and hope. In it, the singer dreams of someday finding love and having a child named Winter. Instead of lamenting their current state of being alone, they focus on a beautiful future. I’ve always found comfort in the “somedays” during low moments, and Dear Winter is the perfect song to emulate that attitude. It’s the theme of a romantic who knows their soulmate is out there, even if they haven't found them yet.
“If it’s my final album
And if I am forgotten
I hope I made you smile
That’s all I ever wanted”
Finale (Can’t Wait to See What You Do Next) completes the narrative of Neotheater. We started with a big step into the great unknown with Next Up Forever and Birthday Party. Then, we settled into doubt and uncertainty with Turning Out, Pt. II, The Entertainment’s Here, and Karma. By the time we got to Wow, I’m Not Crazy and Dear Winter, we had experienced the highs and lows of moving on and moving up. We’ve come to an understanding that while we’ve come a long way, we still have a long way to go. The Finale cements Neotheater’s message that growing up is a process that never really ends.
If you weren’t familiar with AJR before, I hope I’ve convinced you to check them out. I wish I was able to go to their Neotheater tour. I’ve heard amazing things about AJR’s production and artistry while performing live. I was hoping to make it to the second leg of that tour, which was scheduled for Spring 2020, but all of those shows were canceled. While it’s still uncertain when they’ll be performing live again, AJR’s fourth album, OK Orchestra, will be released later this week, on March 26, 2021. If Neotheater is any indication, OK Orchestra will be amazing musically, lyrically, and narratively.