On Wednesday, February 17, the up and coming brother band AJR released their newest single “Way Less Sad,” a feature track on their upcoming album “OK Orchestra.” On its first day, the music video received 606,748 views and quickly climbed to well over half a million after the first week.
Often, an artist will yield inspiration from a mixture of places: sometimes in memoir style, taking from their verbatim lived experiences, or fictional stories they’ve created, or some kind of amalgamation of the two. AJR is a special case. Whether their song content is all autobiographical is one thing, but it is undeniable that through their albums, they have constructed a cohesive mythos that is clearly expanding into their upcoming releases.
“Way Less Sad” is no exception, in fact, it is a direct continuation of the storyline built up throughout their previous albums, filled with explanation and references to previous songs. So, get your phone out, put some headphones on and let’s dive into AJR’s newest song.
First, before we look at individual lyrics and how they expand upon the brother band lore, let’s define the key themes that trail through “Living Room,” “The Click” and “Neotheater,” their album discography.
“Living Room” is perhaps the least connected to this mythos. The band was clearly trying to define what their sound, well, sounded like. With tracks like “My Calling” and “The Green And The Town,” they establish themselves as young adults just trying to do exactly what the album is doing: find their footing. On the other hand, with tracks like “Big White Bed”, they set up a disenchanted romantic narrative that will continue across albums.
It was their sophomore album, “The Click,” that gave them their first taste of fame. This album feels like we’re following the artists as they go through their college experience––dealing with feelings of disenfranchisement from their childhoods, discovering illicit substances and the open world of new relationships that are created during that time.
“Neotheater” was released well into their budding fame. Taking place with a mostly post-adolescent tone, their third album grapples with the pressures of growing up and gaining popularity. While songs like “Turning Out, Pt. II” have firm conclusions, “Karma” and “Don’t Throw Out My Legos” struggle with the uncertainty of truly entering adulthood.
They are telling the story of their lives, each step of the way as they grow up. Which is exactly where we arrive at “Way Less Sad”. Growing up is depressing and hard for many, and AJR certainly hasn’t strayed from the darkness that can lie there.
So, before we come to any hard conclusions about the overall meaning of the song, let’s break apart the references sprinkled throughout the lyrics. Are you listening? Good.
The song starts with this loud, vibrant trumpet melody that prevails throughout the song, tying each piece together. This signature song is actually a Simon & Garfunkel sample, written by the aforementioned Simon himself.
We soon reach the pre-chorus, the jovial music working as the antithesis to the grim lyrics: “I’m a-okay, I’m a-okay / You say it but you just don’t mean it.” The band’s overall arc with mental health has been slowly climbing toward a life where childhood optimism meets adulthood realism (that often slips into pessimism).
For example, in “Karma,” the song simulates a therapy session where a positive breakthrough feels so far and yet so close. The main lyrics include, “And I’ve been so good / But it’s still getting harder / I’ve been so good / Where the hell is the karma?”
“Way Less Sad” at the very least concludes its pre-chorus with a glimmer of hope, saying: “Shut up and just enjoy this feelin’,” working as an optimistic call to choose happiness in the moment rather than using it as a reminder to how bad things are or have been.
In the second verse, the line, “I wake up and I’m not so mad at Twitter now,” is a reference to the band’s (namely the lead singer Jack Met) aversion to social media and all the pressures that come in a colorfully packaged present with it. More specifically, it’s a call back to two songs, “Burn the House Down,” and “Birthday Party.”
In the former (semi-political rant), Met sings, “Should I hang my head low? / Should I bite my tongue? / Or should I march with every stranger from Twitter to get shit done?” In the latter: “I bet this Instagram’s a load of fun / It’s best to show the best of everyone / I bet it never bites us in the bum.” This is the beginning of showing their change in themes, small as it may be.
This brings us to the bridge, the heavily auto-tuned dreamlike section of the song. “Well, I can’t fall asleep and I’m losin’ my mind / ‘Cause it’s half-past three and my brain’s on fire,” is the first line of the bridge, one that has references littered throughout it.
For one reason or another, 3:30 A.M. is a magical time for the AJR brothers. In the cover for their platinum certified single “Bang!” a clock can be seen set to 3:30. On “The Click” a song called “Three Thirty” is featured. It’s about the pressures of trying to write the perfect single, one that encapsulates all the important and relatable topics that will grab the audience’s attention. Connected to “Way Less Sad,” this could mean that 3:30 is the hour these brothers stay up at night, contemplating all of these topics. On the upcoming album, a whole song is dedicated to the hour (“3 O’Clock Things”).
“My brain’s on fire,” is not a new feeling for the brothers. They often seem to be fixated with the feeling of being trapped in thought. One example, “The Entertainment’s Here,” features a very similar lyric: “Cause I can only eat so many times in a day / Until I’m bored again and I’m stuck in my brain / You wonder what they did before inventing the phone / Yeah, how could anybody face the quiet alone?”
Another thing the band loves doing is taking iconic childhood -isms, toys and lessons and flipping them on their heads for the adult experience. This single features one of its own, “I been countin’ sheep but the sheep all died / And I’m tryin’ too hard but I can’t not try.”
The examples for this stream of consciousness are many, but perhaps the most notable are in “Turning Out” and “Don’t Throw Out My Legos.” The former is about learning what love is on TV or from fluffy Disney films and beginning to question that. It has a long chain where it repeats: “I’m a little kid, and so are you / Don’t you go and grow up before I do / I’m a little kid with so much doubt / Do you wanna be there to see how I turn out?” Perhaps this is a little too on the nose, but the idea stands.
The latter is self explanatory. However, it has an Easter egg of its own. The “Way less Sad” music video features Met amongst many clones of himself wearing a white tee-shirt with nothing more than “The Band Name” written sloppily on the chest. In “Don’t Throw Out My Legos” they sing, “People want shirts with the band name on it.”
That brings us to the ending. The song wraps up with the vocal melody becoming one with that of the piano, creating an artificial voice-instrument combobulation that sails us into the ending. A similar technique was used in “Bummerland,” their single that was released in August 2020. Producer and band member Ryan Met has clearly been working on this technique.
And that’s “Way Less Sad!” Their fourth album “OK Orchestra” makes its debut on March 26, 2020. Pre-save and pre-order it on Apple Music and Spotify.