For its sophomore album, Sydney quartet 5 Seconds of Summer tasked itself with resolving the “boy band vs. rock band” conflict that has plagued the group since it became a superstar by touring with One Direction. Sounds Good Feels Good needed to edge toward more mature content, said standard wisdom, but without alienating the band’s predominantly teen female fans. Within that arguably dubious dichotomy, it mostly succeeds.
The first sounds are a guitar tuning and studio chatter, a certificate of working-band authenticity. The set cuts down on lyrics about crushes for themes of generational anxiety and solidarity that seem partly inspired by their fellow antipodean, Lorde, as on rousing singles “She’s Kinda Hot” and “Hey Everybody.” But ironically, its primary rock template is inspired by bands once teased for being “mall punk”: Blink-182 and particularly Good Charlotte, whose members contribute to the songwriting here.
Pop-punk never staked as much on singularity as it did to vitality, and 5SOS echoes its forefathers when it’s not directly quoting them — verses of “Hey Everybody” so closely resemble “Hungry Like the Wolf” that Duran Duran got a writing credit. But the band sells itself short when it uses those influences as a guide to go “dark,” as on “Permanent Vacation” (which still manages to be fun) and “Jet Black Heart” (not as much). All that retro angst is more rote and less involving than the way its debut tried to square loud guitars with the hooky imperatives of chart pop. In the last several tracks, though, the energy returns; with occasional backing from the London Symphony Orchestra, there are even hints of a show-tune side.
None of this may matter to devout fans, and the music is clearly intended for the youth set. It’s hard to be certain who contributed what, but singer-guitarist Michael Clifford seems to emerge as the group’s most valuable songwriter, with an urgency and reach that may spring from the mental-health struggles he has mentioned onstage and in interviews. The simple Celtic-styled ballad “Carry On” makes for a touching coda, with a choir assuring, “You know it’s gonna get better.” 5SOS, with most of its members still only 19, might get better too.
Listen to 5 Seconds of Summer and other artists featured in this week’s issue of Billboard.
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of Billboard.