Up until a few days ago, there was a glaring blindspot in my knowledge of contemporary music: I had never knowingly listened to a Thirty Seconds To Mars song.
This is acceptable for most people. After all, while Thirty Seconds to Mars has sold more than 15 million albums worldwide since 2002 and features the messianic posturing of Oscar winner Jared Leto, it’s not as if the band is hugely important to the culture. Like practically every other rock band right now, they are extremely easy to avoid.
But for me, ignorance of Thirty Seconds to Mars was inexplicable. I am a publicly known sucker for bombastic, unintentionally hilarious rock bands. (Please enter my near-complete collection of Muse, Killers, and Kings Of Leon CDs into evidence.) A person like myself not already being intimately familiar with Thirty Seconds To Mars’ oeuvre is like Charles Barkley not having seen Kevin Durant on a basketball court until this week.
My 16 years to hearing Thirty Seconds To Mars finally ended with America, the band’s first album in five years, which dropped last Friday. It’s likely that America will be the second or third most popular album of the week, behind Cardi B’s juggernaut debut Invasion Of Privacy, which you might have heard about from the approximately 6,423 reviews that have papered social media in the past few days.
America, meanwhile, has been largely ignored by the music press, no matter Leto’s desperate stabs for attention during the album’s promotional campaign, including a five-day trek across the country in which he traveled by Greyhound bus and even by hitchhiking, an ersatz On The Road-style adventure that Leto inevitably described as “very grounding.”
Before digging into America, I perused the band’s Wikipedia page, in order to get the Cliff’s Notes version of the band’s history. Let me point out the obvious: Wikipedia is a poor substitute for actually digging into a band’s discography and absorbing every album over the course of weeks, or even months. As a resource, it will only give you the most superficial, and possibly laziest, impression.
HAVING SAID THAT … it must be noted that Thirty Seconds To Mars has a spectacular Wikipedia page. In fact, after listening to Thirty Seconds To Mars’ music, I would argue that my experience with this band peaked with Wikipedia.
Here are some of the amazing things I learned about Thirty Seconds To Mars:
— Thirty Seconds To Mars “is a metaphor for the future,” says Leto, who adds that “Mars being the God of war makes it really interesting as well.” Can’t argue with you there, Jared.
— When Thirty Seconds To Mars made its self-titled debut album with producer Bob Ezrin (who was hired because of his work on Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Kiss’ Destroyer, among other ’70s rock classics), the band chose to record in a sprawling warehouse lot located on 15,000 acres, to replicate the feel of playing inside of a stadium or a massive festival.
— Leto directed the video for “The Kill,” a single from Thirty Seconds To Mars’ platinum-selling 2005 LP A Beautiful Lie, under the name Bartholomew Cubbins.
— In 2011, Thirty Seconds To Mars set a Guinness World Record for longest tour cycle when the band performed its 300th show in support of 2009’s This Is War.
— In 2013, Thirty Seconds To Mars sent its latest single, “Up In The Air,” into space as part of the SpaceX Dragon launch.
Clearly, Thirty Seconds To Mars is the Kevin Durant of bombastic, unintentionally hilarious rock bands.
If only listening to Thirty Seconds To Mars was as much fun as reading about them. But America essentially is a medley of the most dispiriting trends in radio and streaming-friendly rock music right now. The same slick sonic hallmarks that distinguishes the tasteless gruel served up by Imagine Dragons and Twenty One Pilots abound on America — the EDM beats that boom thoughtlessly like Cascio presets, the clanging Hans Zimmer synths, the chorus of “oh’s” that inevitably rouse the listener in a Pavlovian sense, but are more akin to soccer chants than music.
I know people must like this formula, because it’s the only form of rock music that’s given any real mainstream exposure these days. But the utility of this music seems to center on how it blends in harmlessly with other, more dominant pop songs on a playlist. The characteristics that typically make rock songs great — volume, energy, anger, lust, oddness, abrasiveness, a steadfast refusal to fit in — don’t function well on radio or streaming platforms.
If you put, say, a 90-second screamer from the latest Turnstile record in the middle of a typical “hot tracks” playlist, it will cause millions of listeners to fall out of their comfy chairs at home. It will kill the flow, and murdering the flow is a cardinal sin now. So, bands that obediently go with the flow are rewarded.
Judging by the tracklist of America — yes, this album is vaguely “political” — Thirty Seconds To Mars has delusions of dominance: Titles like “Walk On Water,” “Dangerous Night,” “Hail To The Victor,” and “Dawn Will Rise” promise screamingly intense melodrama. But the actual music is just a series of docile concessions to safe, nondescript formulas.
“Dangerous Night” has some autopilot production flourishes from EDM star Zedd. “One Track Mind” spotlights a brain-dead cameo by one-time hip-hop flavor-of-the-month A$AP Rocky. “Love Is Madness” is a cookie-cutter banger co-starring current flavor-of-the-month Halsey. Even “Walk On Water,” the album’s big “statement” track, is an Aldous Snow-level cliche-fest about how “times are changing.” In interviews, Leto positions himself either as a rock messiah (at best) or a likable buffoon (at worst). But he’s not supposed to be blandly anonymous.
It wasn’t always like this for Thirty Seconds To Mars. On The Beautiful Lie, the band’s artistic and commercial peak, Thirty Seconds To Mars’ grandiose prog-metal fury matches its outsized ambitions. In its brightest moments, The Beautiful Lie is enjoyably dumb, kind of like a poor man’s Origin Of Symmetry. (It’s amazing how good Muse suddenly seems after listening to 30 Seconds To Mars.)
America is an exaggerated, Spinal Tap-style redux of the panicked pop moves that U2 has made on its last two albums, the “we’re a middle-aged rock band that’s afraid of irrelevance” record you release when mass acceptance must be achieved by any means necessary. I discovered Thirty Seconds To Mars just in time to be disappointed by them.
America is out now on Interscope. Order it here.