Photo Credit: Jonathan Weiner
Although they were relative latecomers to the wave of commercially successful punk bands which began in the mid-90s – eventually including groups like Green Day, Blink-182 and Fall Out Boy – Sum 41 still managed to arrive on time to both enjoy a similar mass audience and also endure the standard criticism which maintained that, well, there’s simply no such thing as “commercially successful punk” (a notion usually shorthanded by the application of the label “mall punk”). After enjoying nearly a decade under the care and feeding of industry giants Island Records, Sum 41 joined the roster of indie label Hopeless as of their 2016 release 13 Voices. While many would view this decision as a career regression for the band, if we were to try and put a positive, Ian Faith spin on this situation, we might instead suggest that they’ve gotten back to their punk roots.
Either way, Order in Decline, Sum 41’s sophomore Hopeless release and seventh studio album, is for the most part a strong and solid effort. Several of the tracks do sound very close to the style of the skate-punk that the band has always been known for, replete with that few seconds of shouted vocals which sound as though they were recorded through a tin-can telephone (which even turn up on the U2-like “New Sensation”). Such familiar territory can be heard on the album opener “Out for Blood” as well as “A Death in the Family,” even though both tracks at least also throw the listener a marginal curve with classic rock style guitar and/or bass solos.
Indeed, despite the title, Order in Decline clearly represents a noticeably more mature sound coming from Sum 41, who are probably aware that their current audience is more likely to be older individuals who grew up with them than new fans. As they themselves say on the aforementioned “Death in the Family”: “Your fate is left to a different generation // You know they won’t be kind.” Well, maybe they’ll appreciate “Heads Will Roll,” a tight and to-the-point bluesy rocker; or “Never There,” a strong mid-tempo piano ballad highlighted by a borderline Beatles-esque instrumental break.
Still, the band does remain true to their punk roots in ways that go beyond simply recording for a small label with a moniker like Hopeless Records. Musically, this is most evident on the Bad Religion-sounding “The People Vs…” – possibly the album’s best track – on which they sing: “I know a bad man when I see his face // And now we suffer as the human race // To end this misery, he’s got to go.” An educated guess would probably conclude that their subject is Donald Trump (although just to address the moose in the room, Sum 41 are Canadian), as he is on the track “45 (A Matter of Time)”: “I realize it’s plain to see // A number is all you’ll ever be.”
But in 2019, can Sum 41 be more than just a number? In the video “Still Waiting” sixteen years ago (yes, it’s been that long) they jokingly re-christened themselves the Sums in order to compete with hype-babies like the Hives and the Vines who looked to overtake them in the rock climate of the time. However, both of those bands have barely appeared on the U.S. charts since 43 (George W. Bush) sat in the White House. Proving that generally, Sum 41 has proven that they know how to roll with the punches.
The album closer “Catching Fire” is a strong, likable mid-tempo tune very much the same flavor as “Candy,” the 1991 single by Iggy Pop. “Candy” also happens to have been the proto-punk god’s only Top 40 hit and recorded when he was in his early forties. Both artists have faced head-on a mentality that maintains that there’s a rock (the other kind)-paper-scissors principle of one thing inevitably canceling out the other when it comes to the idea that punk, maturity, and commercial success could ever possibly co-exist. But they do, at least, on Order in Decline, and Sum 41 show that they equal or even exceed the sum of their parts.