Simple Plan – ‘Harder Than It Looks’

By gary cassidy

It’s been 20 years since Simple Plan burst onto our airwaves with the uniquely infectious debut album ‘No Pads, No Helmets… Just Balls’. Two decades and five albums later, and the band’s sixth release ‘Harder Than It Looks’ has an equally punny title and is closer musically to their first outing than anything that has come in between.

Having, understandably, departed slightly from their teen angst anthems for ‘Get Your Heart On’ and ‘Taking One For The Team’, ‘Harder Than It Looks’ sees Simple Plan return to saccharine sounds with sour yet relatable lyrics.

The sugar-coated nature of Simple Plan’s sound make the band an easy target for some, which is understandable if the MTV generation of pop punk isn’t your bag. One thing to get out of the way before you continue; if you’re looking for a punk album with plenty of edge and heavy riffs, this isn’t for you. In fact, Simple Plan most definitely aren’t for you. That said, if you want catchy melodies and pop punk with emphasis on the “pop” part then strap in – you’re in for a treat.

Opener ‘Wake Me Up (When This Nightmare’s Over)’ is a track that, if I wanted to hit you with a sarcastic line from the off, I’d compare “The Nightmare” to the rest of this album. Being facetious, though, isn’t worth trading for the truth, and the truth is that this is a nostalgic blast of melodic Simple Plan which sets us up for a blast right back to 2002.

It’s always clever to release a few big singles before an album release and ‘Ruin My Life’ brings another sense of familiarity – both from being unmistakably Simple Plan as well as a heavily promoted released single. One other stroke of genius when it comes to a band like Simple Plan is to get an equally as distinct voice on your record. While the band have turned to Mark Hoppus, Jordan Pundik and Alex Gaskarth in the past, ‘Harder Than It Looks’ sees two of the most recognisable voices to come out of Canada team up (sorry, Celine and Justin) as Sum 41’s Deryck Whibley brings an edge otherwise missing from Simple Plan songs.

It’s angsty and catchy – everything you’d expect from a Simple Plan and Sum 41 collaboration – and it’s undoubtedly one of the strongest tracks on the album. “I used to lie awake and let you occupy my mind” is, again, reminiscent of SP from their ‘No Pads…’ and ‘Still Not Getting Any’ days.

If you’re familiar with Simple Plan, you’ll know that ballads aren’t their strong point. Much like fellow pop punk contemporaries Good Charlotte, the slower songs often feel like a speed bump in the context of an entire albums, but there are some wonderfully energetic minutes to be had on ‘Harder Than It Looks’. We hit the first speed bump in ‘The Antidote’ which veers too close to ballad for anyone looking for punk, or even pop punk, but is reminiscent of ‘Welcome To My Life’ and it’s clear to see why it was the first single released on this go-around. It’s slightly cheesy, but that isn’t always a bad thing, and it will definitely resonate.

One of the greatest frustrations with Simple Plan over the years has been the shelving of really good “filler” tracks, and ‘A Million Pictures Of You’ may just rival ‘God Must Hate Me’, ‘Jump’ and ‘Loser of the Year’ if it doesn’t get a single release. It’s probably THE standout track on the album and undoubtedly Simple Plan at their most ‘Simple Plan’. Time travel may not yet have been made possible at time of publication, but this will zap you right back into your old childhood bedroom – only you’re now listening on your phone rather than a Sony Walkman, and you likely have a framed photo of a dandelion in a vase on your wall rather than diagonal magazine tear-out posters of Green Day and blink-182.

‘Anxiety’ is the other bookend of ‘The Antidote’ and veers slightly too close to THAT self-titled third album. The chorus is catchy but it’s the now-trademark R’n’B song of the album and, sadly, the most skippable. If you missed that third album, and many did, think Simple Plan covering Ed Sheeran and you’re in the right ballpark.

Thankfully, ‘Congratulations’ is the epitome of old Simple Plan with an even catchier chorus accompanied by up-tempo riffs and downbeat lyrics before new wave-inspired ‘Iconic’ annoyingly veers back in the opposite direction and could easily be mistaken for Papa Roach’s ‘Born For Greatness’ from the get-go.

‘Best Day Of My Life’ brings an all-too-obvious F-bomb, which always feels a bit forced in Simple Plan songs due to their typically PG, radio-friendly sound but otherwise this wouldn’t sound out of place on a Tony Hawk soundtrack and may even be a contender for ‘Best Track Of This Album’, as is ‘Slow Motion’, which juxtaposes its title in every single way as the most energetic offering of the release.

Album closer ‘Two’ will zap you back to 2002 yet again, and narrates the story of growing up in a broken home. “I never wanted two families, two stories / All I wanted was to go to back to one” is a very ‘Simple Plan’ closer. Much like ‘Perfect’, it leaves on a poignant note while being a relatable and powerful punch in the context of an otherwise upbeat album.

While the composition of this album is, in parts, questionable and there’s an argument that the removal of some of the weaker tracks would leave you with a pretty brilliant pop punk EP, the placement of the first and last tracks is undeniably appropriate.

While Simple Plan once sang about not wanting to grow up, the harsh reality is that we’re all 20 years older than we were when their first album was released – but some things never change and how polarising the band is… Well, that’s still undisputed, but being ‘polarising’ is nothing new to Simple Plan. They’ll never be the coolest band on the planet but that’s what made them so relatable to an entire generation of people who grew up feeling like they didn’t fit in.

‘Harder Than It Looks’ definitely isn’t for everyone and even many 30-somethings who remember Simple Plan from back in the day will even find this a bit sugary, but those who have a sweet tooth may very well find themselves Addicted to the catchy pop punk earworms offered up here.

With only one track tipping four minutes, and an entire duration of just over half an hour, the Canadian rockers’ latest release is their most authentic since ‘Still Not Getting Any’ and there is a new-found sense of freedom from a band who are “free agents” for the first time in their career.

The band may have matured but they haven’t grown up – which gives a perfect blast of nostalgia for ’00s pop punk kids and provides a very digestible, upbeat and relatable escape for those who need it. And the simplicity of doing that is, most definitely, much harder than it looks.

GARY CASSIDY

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