Photo Credit: Nathan James
Musicians have been writing love songs dedicated to the object of their romantic affection for millennia, but we honestly can’t remember the last time we heard anyone as out-of-their-mind in love as expressed in a song on a particular track from God Save the Teen, the latest album from rock drummer turned rapper turned rock frontman, Derek Ryan Smith, professionally known as MOD SUN. On “Avril’s Song” – yes, it’s the Avril we’re all thinking of – Smith claims in no uncertain terms that the relationship saved his very life (“She blew me a kiss // And I didn’t want to blow my brains out anymore”) as well as making the creative yet somewhat unsettling sentiment, “I’m such a basket case // I want my casket laced // With pictures of your face (of your face).”
Of course, the tragic plot twist worthy of Shakespeare (or at least a second-rate reality show) is that within weeks of this album’s recent release, it was announced that Smith and Avril Lavinge had split up. While we’re spending time hoping that he’ll be okay, we can listen to the rest of God Save the Teen. To probably nobody’s surprise, Avril Lavigne does make an actual appearance, on “Shelter.” Though a decent track, ironically her vocal contribution on this duet doesn’t come to much – listening, one might think she was just the main artist’s girlfriend and not a decades-long multi-platinum-selling solo artist in her own right. It’s actually the singer known as Royal & the Serpent (the stage name of female singer/songwriter Ryan Santiago) whose distinct voice creates more of an impact on “SOS.”
In a relatively scant thirty-six minutes and change, God Save the Teens ends up going in a lot of different directions. There’s the same arrangement, same tempo, same everything cover of the Goo Goo Dolls’ hit ballad “Iris,” which it’s impossible to tell is meant to be tributary or ironic. However, it’s obvious that Smith is 100% sincere with “Single Mothers,” a heartfelt tribute to both his own mother (who does a touching spoken word part) and those like her.
By sharp contrast, you’ve got “Courtney F*cked Kurt.” While delivered as a mile-a-minute classic punk song (addressing not only the couple in the title but the equally-ill-fated Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen), Smith also takes a somewhat misguided aim at alleged punk posers: “Use your parents’ scissors just the cut holes in your jeans… // Looking up YouTube videos about anarchy.” This is majorly wonky for several reasons. First of all, the words in the song are incomprehensible, so getting his message also requires internet technology just to look up and understand the lyrics. And of course, there’s the fact that artists like Smith who create a variance of the original punk which has also been (intentionally) accessible to a mainstream audience have been accused for decades of being the true punk phonies.
Yet, Smith seems fully aware of this as well. “But the world tells me I’m a poser,” he sings on “Delusional Confidence.” The title, too, proves just a bit ironic, since with phrases like “The mirror tells me I’m a king // But the world tells me I’m a joker,” Smith has every reason to be confident in at least his abilities as a solid lyricist. The music on God Save the Teen – whether it’s going with classic emo or a more modern sound or even hitting Nineties grunge (as on “Wolves”) delivers more often than not. Despite what he appears to suggest on “Courtney,” on “Drive” Smith seems to express his desire to catch up to the success and recognition which other artists in the same genre have achieved: “Everybody seems to have it all figured out // They got their brand, they got their fans // They got a million eyes looking at their lives // So when is mine gonna start?”
Smith’s feelings might be warranted: his MOD SUN albums have barely charted while fellow rapper-turned-emo-rocker Machine Gun Kelly (just to cite one of Smith’s contemporaries) has enjoyed No.1 albums and platinum sales. Smith closes out the album with a rap section, which may hint at his next direction or might show that he’s trying to retain some connection to what he’s done in the recent past. That which Smith chooses to do next will probably provide more of an explanation. On the comfortably catchy – if morbidly titled – “When We’re Dead,” Smith sings “Don’t give up on me, I’m a work in progress.” Big hit or not, based on this album not many are going to give up on Smith, or MOD SON – and that should certainly include Smith himself.