Sandwiched between hits on the rock radio stations it dominated from 2011 to 2013, Awolnation‘s blockbuster “Sail” sounds like Nine Inch Nails covering Nickelback. It’s dark, with crashing synths, scary violins and lyrics about ADD. If you never listened to its parent LP, 2011’s Megalithic Symphony, it’s easy to imagine Awolnation as the latest active rock project out of Manitoba or Oklahoma City. But nothing could be further from the truth: The act is, in fact, the one-man band of 36-year-old Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter-producer Aaron Bruno, and Megalithic is an ebullient orchestral pop record. “Sail,” which briefly held the record as the longest-charting song on the Billboard Hot 100 (79 weeks) until Imagine Dragons‘ “Radioactive” surpassed it, sounds like nothing else on it.
Bruno, then, faced a quandary with follow-up Run: Deliver 12 new versions of “Sail,” or keep Awolnation weird. He does the latter, and that’s a good thing. On Run, Bruno acts like a short-order cook serving up a menu of diverse sounds as fast as possible: the Ryan Tedder hook-slinger special, the Jeff Lynne and Brian Wilson instrument-drenched combo, the Trent Reznor with a side of schmaltz. His stamina alone is worth applauding; a number of his songs are too. “Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf)” welds ’80s dance pop to throbbing industrial skronk, like OMD getting a piggyback ride from Skinny Puppy. “Fat Face,” with its soft-shoe beat and winsome pianos, could be mistaken for Electric Light Orchestra if Bruno weren’t screaming its chorus. And the charming acoustic ballad “Headrest for My Soul” is as unassuming as its title.
If there’s another “Sail” here, it’s grinding rocker “Windows,” but even that features Pet Sounds-esque arrangements and cascading pop vocals. Like the rest of the LP, the song brims with textures and moods that go in multiple directions at once. Listening to Bruno try to pull it off is fascinating, though not particularly moving. It’s like watching someone juggle chain saws.
As evidenced by Bruno’s forebears — those aforementioned pop visionaries — there’s a long and storied line of geniuses/nutjobs who can anchor their orchestral ambitions with real emotion. Bruno’s not there yet, and it’s possible he never will be; his rightful place may just be behind the boards rather than in the spotlight. Emo lyrics aside — “Last night I fell apart/Broke from my swollen heart,” he sings over the delicious synth pop of “Woman Woman” — Run is more of a technical accomplishment than an artistic one. Bruno the pop star is not nearly as appealing as Bruno the juggler.
This story originally appeared in the March 21st issue of Billboard.