The topic of the “concept album” can be a bit of a tenuous one at best. For every Quadrophenia or Separation Sunday or Zen Arcade, there are effectively infinite complete and total clunkers (looking at you, Smashing Pumpkins, Fall Out Boy, and the entire post-Rush prog-metal genre). Many times, the projects are an exercise in self-importance, the hallmark of a band that’s long-since reached its apex and is now relegated to artsily grasping at straws. All too often, the lyrics tend to feel forced, clunkily shoehorned in to fit the topic at hand.
And yet, it was with limited trepidation that news of Nashville rockers Blacklist Royals newest “concept album” release, Die Young With Me, broke. Much has been written about in these pages already about the album’s theme and the band’s tumultuous existence in the years since the 2010 release of their prior full-length, Semper Liberi. Essentially a two-piece band during much of the Die Young With Me writing process, drummer Rob Rufus and his twin brother/frontman/guitarist Nat chose to retell the former’s struggle to overcome a rare type of cancer. And while that sounds like it could make for an over-the-top sappy schlock-fest, the result is anything but.
For starters, that’s because Die Young With Me doesn’t sound like a concept album. Album-opener “Righteous Child” begins the recurring theme of reflecting on what might have been if days gone by had gone by a little differently. The song builds gradually to its uptempo climax by the time of the anthemic second chorus. The album’s lead single (initially self-released as a 7-inch prior to the band’s tour with Swingin’ Utters last fall), “Righteous Child” sets the stage for what represents quantum leaps forward, both lyrically and stylistically, from Semper Liberi. When at their best, the brothers Rufus have a penchant for penning anthemic tracks that build like waves. “Missing Something,” “Skeleton Crew” and the album’s title track are brilliant examples of this. “Hearts On Fire,” the second track released from the album, could exist as a stand-alone single in its own right, built around an infectiously catchy chorus.
From the first listen, Die Young With Me has been one of my favorite releases of the year. The strongest tracks seem instantly relatable and right at home, and yet not like anything that the band (or the Gaslight Anthem, to whom they are frequently, and unfairly compared) have ever done. And while the songs are structured and expertly written, I can’t help but think that a few of them are, well, missing something (obvious pun not intended). The lead vocals seem high in the mix, and keys and layered rhythm guitar take the place of bass and any lead guitar to speak of (Die Young With Me was recorded by the Rufus brothers with producer Ted Hutt; bassist Dirk Mathews and lead guitarist Brad Blanco didn’t make the trip to LA). While many times this is enough, there are a handful of songs that get this close to building to a crescendo that they don’t quite reach, and don’t quite capture the high-energy live performance that the current four-piece lineup have crafted in a fairly short amount of time (“I Got Your Letter” appears on the album in a stripped down form from its initial live sound; uptempo rocker “She’s The One,” the b-side to the “Righteous Child” single, didn’t make the final album cut).
Though barely a week removed from its June 10th release date via Krian Music Group, Die Young With Me has rightfully earned what will undoubtedly be a long-standing spot in my regular rotation. And yet, what it may have ultimately achieved the most is having more than sufficiently planted seeds that leave me eagerly awaiting what comes next from Blacklist Royals, both live and on record. One can only hope (and I think the band would agree) that it doesn’t take four years and another lineup turnover to get us there!