Violent Femmes are probably best known for their 1983 self-titled album and its first track, “Blister in the Sun.” The song is twitchy and riotous — a jubilant twist of guitar riff, snare drum and the undulating voice of frontman Gordon Gano. The song was the impetus for the band’s success and encapsulated what would become its signature folk-punk sound.
The group’s latest release, Hotel Last Resort, is a flaccid attempt to recreate that sort of pithiness, landing somewhere in a void left by the legacy of its previous work. It’s painfully clear that the album is supposed to be at least semi-satirical — a half-hearted “F.U.” you to the group’s political opponents, naysayers and “the man” in general. But any attempts at subversion fall short of the band’s intended aims, and what results is a largely cringey 13-track release.
Hotel Last Resort begins with the plucky, percussive track “Another Chorus” — its title already suggesting a sort of resigned attitude toward the whole operation. And the song follows through on that promise, with Gano speak-singing an ode to the passivity of songwriting itself: “Please don’t sing another chorus / That’s the thing that really bores us / Please don’t sing another chorus / Please don’t sing.” This chorus then repeats five times throughout the song.
There’s no sense of opacity here, as the song is clearly supposed to be a send-off to the repetitive nature of “the industry,” or at least a meta-wink at the band’s own place in it. You can just about hear the wheels turning over the decision to make this song: Opening up an album with a song about boring choruses with a boring chorus? That’ll show them. But with this level of self-awareness, any truly comedic element is lost in the forcefulness of the wink. There’s no whimsy here, just laziness.
“I’m Nothing,” the album’s third track, is similarly pedantic and leaden — like a track off of a children’s album teaching a lesson of extreme pessimism. Gano begins by literally spelling out his thesis — “I’m N-O-T-H-I-N” — multiple times before launching into a pseudo-political critique on the listener’s own apathy, asking, “Are you a Republican or a Democrat? / A liberal fascist full of crap? / I’m nothing, I’m nothing.” Again, it’s not really funny or actual critique, but an indulgence into a removed, above-it-all attitude the band is apparently trying to counter with the album.
Hotel Last Resort continues as a general musical eye roll, with tracks such as “Adam Was a Man” sending up the Book of Genesis (pointing out, in revelatory fashion, that Adam and Eve “Did not do what they were supposed to”) and “Not OK,” sending up the Violent Femmes themselves (claiming, “I could write something better in my sleep / I could sing so pretty it’d make your heart weep”).
By the time the penultimate, a cappella track “Sleepin’ at the Meetin’” rolls around, listeners’ own eyes will be rolling, far into the crevices of their skulls, where they will continue to migrate until the closing song. The group inexplicably decided to end Hotel Last Resort with a cover of “God Bless America,” which piddles out in some sort of pseudo-angsty final send-up of the country in general.
The group’s compositions save the album from totally drooping, outpacing the apathetic lyrics and ideas with generally upbeat melodies. Gano consistently keeps the music moving forward with agreeable guitar riffs, and drummer John Sparrow brings a marching rhythm that sustains many of the songs. The titular sixth track “Hotel Last Resort” features Television’s Tom Verlaine, making for a nice, brief addition to the quartet.
Violent Femmes are unfortunately part of a larger pattern of formerly alternative (mostly all-male) groups trying to recultivate their cachet as innovative indie edgelords (see: Weezer and its latest, impossibly bad “Teal” and “Black” albums). Hotel Last Resort is neither innovative, edgy nor very good, and it is in line with this trend of attempting to tap into the veins of old successes. The album ultimately leaves a sour taste on the palate — and not the acidity of their previous work, but a dulled, lingering burn of something left in the sun too long.