For a time now, it’s been anyone’s guess what we’d see next from pop-punk outfit Neck Deep. After forging themselves a new path upon the release of their third LP The Peace And The Panic, the band threw subsequent curve balls in the ensuing singles that followed. Once again venturing into the unknown, the five-piece have set out to surprise listeners on their fourth album, All Distortions Are Intentional, out July 24 through Hopeless Records.
But maybe you won’t be surprised, because if you had ‘Neck Deep release a concept album’ alongside global pandemic and UFOs in your 2020 bingo card, you’d be spot on. All Distortions Are Intentional follows the story of a central character known as ‘The Lowlife’ – which might sound familiar to those who have already given time to the album’s singles. Together, listeners venture through the highs and lows of his life in a fictional world called Sonderland.
Yet for all the adventures we take through Sonderland alongside The Lowlife, it’s the audacious musical undertaking that Neck Deep have undergone that will keep you on the edge of your seat for the forty-minute run time of the band’s fourth album. At times, All Distortions Are Intentional is everything fans have come to expect from Neck Deep, but it’s when it isn’t that listeners will truly get to see what the band have blossomed into with their newest endeavour.
Opening with “Sonderland”, the album’s first track is the perfect foreword into the world that Neck Deep have conceptualised. It introduces a world not so dissimilar from our own, highlighted by vibrant guitars, thunderous drums and sweet, sombre vocals. Detailing the inability of The Lowlife to find his place within the world, the melancholy detailed in Barlow’s vocals is discordant against the song’s resilient and upbeat instrumentals. For long-time fans, “Sonderland” feels like classic Neck Deep, combining catchy hooks and an infectious chorus with uncompromising instrumentals, but there’s an undeniable and welcomed pop influence that has tiptoed into the mix.
Just as we’ve seen many of the band’s contemporaries do the same thing to different effect, it doesn’t feel like a surprise to see Neck Deep develop a much deeper relationship with their pop influences than we’ve ever seen from them. Yet for as present as these pop sensibilities are on the album, especially in tracks like “Quarry” and “What Took You So Long?”, in no way is it excessive or overbearing. It seems indicative of the direction that the band are headed into the future, with the album’s latter half exploring the realm of pop more than its earlier stages.
Due to this, All Distortions Are Intentional feels almost divided in its sound. Yet as jarring as the distinct difference between its beginning and its end is, it does not feel accidental whatsoever. The album’s first half is characterised by its angst, with the punk driven songs stemming from the problems that The Lowlife has in coming to terms with his own existence. Songs like “Lowlife” and “Telling Stories” channel unbridled resentment for the outside world as we see Sonderland through the dejected eyes of the album’s protagonist.
The band couple mammoth choruses with beautiful vocal melodies, creating songs and stories that sit amongst the best that have ever come out of the Neck Deep camp. The fourth track on the album “Telling Stories” is monumental, campaigning the carefree attitude that has defined Neck Deep in the past to champion the power of friendship in navigating life. It’s raw and unrelenting, driven by sweltering guitars, thick bass and titanic drums with Barlow’s distinctive vocals sitting satisfyingly on top.
As the dust settles on the album’s first half, there’s a real change of pace as “Quarry” rings in. Running for just under 90 seconds, the song is as close as the band have ever been to an interlude. Sounding more like an emo Soundcloud rap song than anything you’d ever expect to hear from Neck Deep, it feels dark and dismal capturing The Lowlife at his lowest moment. While divisive on first listen, it feels perfectly placed within the album to launch into the conclusion of the tale of The Lowlife.
Where the focus of the album’s introduction was a disconsolate overview of Sonderland, its closing chapters turn to the love and purpose that The Lowlife has found in the form of ‘Alice’, a secondary character first introduced in “Lowlife”. Taking a complete 180, the songs are slower and cautious yet the lyrical content is hopeful and optimistic. Tracks like “Empty House” and “Little Dove” feel the most vulnerable, yet they’re marked by a sense of comfort that The Lowlife has found in Alice.
While it feels as if the band took their foot of the gas temporarily, it’s the album’s closing track “Pushing Daisies” that showcases the heights that Neck Deep have achieved on All Distortions Are Intentional. Following on from “I Revolve (Around You)”, an ode to The Lowlife’s love for Alice, it’s an emphatic and resolute ending to the story that the band have told as we hear Barlow scream “I’m sure you can see that I’m doing much better, me and my girl with the world all figured out”. A rebellious war cry is projected over a roaring and obscure instrumental as The Lowlife voices his discontent for the world one more time, tying the entire album together so neatly.
Despite being a conceptual album, there’s a distinct and overwhelming relatability for listeners that venture to Sonderland with All Distortions Are Intentional. The days of carefree Neck Deep seem like a thing of the past, with the album defined not only by its vulnerability but the clear presence of a weight on the shoulders of the band as they utilise the character of The Lowlife to voice their disapproval of the world. In just forty minutes Neck Deep have built an entire world and taken listeners for the ride of their lives.
While at times the pacing of the album seems to prevent it from reaching greater heights, it’s undoubtedly the bravest undertaking we have seen from the pop-punk powerhouses yet. Its bold embrace of pop influence combined with the no-frills and fiery punk energy that fans have come to expect from the band has created something truly special, and while not perfect it may just be the career defining album that the band have been searching for.
With their fourth studio album behind them, Neck Deep have once again taken bold steps to carve out their own unique niche within the alternative sphere. While it feels like the band at its core, All Distortions Are Intentional showcases a personality that we have never seen from the group before. Despite taking strides into uncharted territory, the growth present in the album feels natural and comfortable for a band who have never shied away from the chance to try something new.
Brave, bold and completely unexpected – All Distortions Are Intentional is a whirlwind of an album that challenges everything we’ve come to know about Neck Deep. I’m not sure what I expected from this album, but it wasn’t what I got and the band have truly pulled it off. Instrumentally huge, while the combination of both punk and pop has been pulled off with outstanding effect. The narrative and the world the band built is phenomenal, and they did it in just forty minutes? Damn!
At times the pacing of the album feels a little slow and underwhelming, and although it makes sense in the context of the narrative the album can feel slightly sluggish at times.