In some of the most quantifiable ways, the Plain White T’s count as a veteran outfit. After all, the band formed in the late ‘90s, when cofounder Tom Higgenson was still in high school, and the T’s had several independent releases already to their credit even before “Hey There Delilah” became an international sensation and cultural touchstone in 2007.
But as far as the Plain White T’s are concerned, they’re just entering their sense-of-wonder years.
The need to hold onto or reclaim the marvels of youth is a determined thread running through the band’s third Hollywood Records release, Wonders of the Younger. Even the love songs that don’t directly deal with the ostensible theme of mentally dialing back the aging process have references to nostalgia, childhood lost, or innocence regained. (In “Broken Record,” Higgenson references “Billie Jean” and sings, I knew it was final / Got in her daddy’s car and she was gone like vinyl.) The message throughout is clear: They were so much older then… they’re younger than that now.
Higgenson had the album title and concept come to him in a place not usually associated with tender innocence: Las Vegas. It was there, on a Valentines Day 2009 visit, that he was bowled over by a Cirque du Soleil show, O, and wondered if it would be possible to capture the same anything-can-happen spirit on record. “The entire show has pirate ships, clowns and carousel horses coming up and going back into the pool, and at one point there’s a piano that comes up out of the water, and it was really epic,” he says. “I just loved it, and it gave me that feeling of being a kid and seeing Goonies for the first time, or Indiana Jones —so adventurous and imaginative and different. I left there wanting to make an album that gave people that same feeling.”
Higgenson, the group’s principal singer and songcrafter, held onto that concept through the full year of writing that followed. “There are songs like the title track and ‘Welcome to Mystery’ and ‘Cirque Dans La Rue’ that are a little bit more in your face with the idea of it. But even with songs like ‘Boomerang’ that are not necessarily all about being young or being a kid, I still had that theme in the back of my head.”
That sense of adventure translated to the stylistic side, too. Any fans who go looking for the hard-rocking pop-punk the group originally became known for as a Warped Tour favorite, or the acoustically based love songs that newcomers came to expect after “Delilah” and “1,2,3,4,” will find something to their liking here. But Wonders… represents a drastically richer sonic experience than anything the T’s went for on any of their five prior releases. Trying to coast by on the sound that had gotten them tagged as emo way back in the day—correctly or otherwise—could only have culminated, on a project this thematically ambitious, in a sense of blunder. The leap forward they’ve made in writing, arrangements, and production on the new album might be compared with the kind of step up that fellow Warped alumnus My Chemical Romance made with The Black Parade. Ironically, on an album that in some ways is deeply concerned with resisting the wiles of “maturation,” the band’s sound has grown exponentially more sophisticated.
“The scope is a lot bigger than anything we’ve done before,” Higgenson says. “We definitely tried to get out of our comfort zone. Not that we wanted to sound like a different band. But we wanted to push ourselves outside of what the Plain White T’s are accustomed to—exploring different arrangements and striving to be more adventurous and exciting lyrically, musically and thematically. It all has to give you that epic feeling that we wanted the album to have. Even the performances that we’re doing and the video we made has to have that slightly surreal, slightly fantastic kind of vibe to it.”
“It’s funny because on our last album, Big Bad World [in 2008], we had the opposite approach. We wanted to strip everything down and wanted it to feel like we’re in the room playing these songs for you. That was our vision for that record, but on this album we wanted to push ourselves and make a really big and colorful recording.”
Starting with the certifiably hummable first single, “Rhythm of Love,” in a departure that’s undeniable, the track is sung by its writer, guitarist Tim Lopez. On the band’s previous disc, Lopez shared vocals with Higgenson on two tracks, but this marks his first time doing a solo lead vocal anywhere outside of a backyard barbecue.
“Rhythm of Love” is in a great band tradition: Like “Hey There Delilah,” it was written to impress a girl.
Lopez explains the real-life story behind the single: “It was written for this girl that I was dating while we were making our last album out in Malibu. We have a lot of history; I’ve known her since I was 11 or 12. I wasn’t really emotionally available to her at the time. I hadn’t completely gotten over my divorce, so when the band left on tour, I decided it wasn’t right to try to keep the relationship going so we called it quits. It was only over the last year or so that I’ve realized what I walked away from. The song was an attempt to rekindle things and win her back. She’s currently dating someone else, and I’m happy for her. But in case it doesn’t work out…who knows?”
“Rhythm of Love” has a markedly gentle feel—gentler even, maybe, than “Hey There Delilah,” which was the first drumless tune to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 since possibly the stone age. “It’s a distinct style change than what we’ve done in the past,” says Lopez, and not just because of his temporary frontman status on it. “Just with that island-y scratch guitar – it’s the sound I heard in my head when it came to writing a song for her.”
The album gets off to a faster start with “Irrational Anthem,” a sort of thematic overture for the record. “Lyrically,” says Higgenson, “I think it says exactly what I want the album to say. I think the line that sums up the whole album is Let your mind go anywhere it wants to. Don’t lose your imagination. Don’t get so wrapped up in your day-to-day life that you forget to dream or be creative, or forget to recapture those things or at least remember them. That’s the beauty of life. I’m a very nostalgic guy, so a lot of where my head lives is in memories. I spend a lot of my time looking back and smiling at past things that have happened in my life.”
Given the more colorful sound of Wonders of the Younger, you might wonder if the band members wish they could rename the group after a more vivid or eccentric article of clothing. But Higgenson insists the moniker fits now more than ever.
“Plain White T’s goes along with the theme of the album,” he says. “With a plain white T, there are no limits there. You can wear it with anything. You can put anything on it. It’s that blank canvas—kind of like your imagination when you’re a kid.”
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