One of the great qualities of Andrew W.K. is his ability to break through the barrier between the artist and the listener. His music often comes off like the aural equivalent of shotgunning an entire pot of coffee and then smashing your face through a window; from a purely utilitarian standpoint, I Get Wet is almost certainly the greatest workout album of all time. The lyrics tap into some collective sense of consciousness, as the songs tend to center around certain familiar feelings at the extreme ends of the emotional spectrum. Then you take his personality, so over-the-top in its enthusiasm and earnestness; his willingness to not just respond to his fans but to connect with them, particularly those who come at him asking for advice about anxiety or depression. Plus, he’s got a pretty sweet Midwestern accent, just like the one I have. Gosh, I feel like I know him.
It’s no surprise then that You’re Not Alone feels a bit like reconnecting with a long lost friend. Not that he’s been gone, exactly…the 12 year gap between this and Close Calls With Brick Walls is more a product of his inability to say “no” to anything than it is any sort of writer’s block. I mean really, he’s sort of been all over the place lately. Andrew W.K. hosts children’s TV show…Andrew W.K. pens advice column…Andrew W.K. does the weather…Andrew W.K. named ambassador to the Middle East (hey, it almost happened!)…and so on. But at the end of the day, music is the man’s true calling. He has not exactly been silent on that front, but the fact remained that the “next Andrew W.K. album” was “in development” for like, a small eternity. Piano magic and covers of tunes from Gundam just doesn’t do it.
Thankfully, the man does have some sense of the moment here. You’re Not Alone is his densest, most epic album yet, and I understand that is a very high bar to clear. But sheesh, just look at that album cover…it almost goes without saying. He came for you, man. Just look at the placement of that microphone. Now flip it over and look at the track titles. You get amped up just reading it. This is serious stuff.
The first thing you hear are the words “PARTY, PARTY, PARTY”, distorted heavily through a vocoder. As the chant goes on, a terrifying imperial march starts playing in the background. For the next 52 minutes, not partying is not an option (thankfully, in Andrew W.K.’s world, there isn’t a whole lot that doesn’t count as partying). After about a minute, the album launches into “Music Is Worth Living For”, a flurry of power chords and soaring vocals which culminates in one of AWK’s most anthemic choruses yet. Music isn’t just something to celebrate, it is the essential life force; “like the glorious sound of God”.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, You’re Not Alone deals exclusively in big themes. Like, life-or-death stuff. One track is even called “Beyond Oblivion”. Andrew W.K. has made his personal struggles quite public in the past; while it’s still unclear what, exactly it was that prevented him from using his name for the better part of a decade, there’s an unmistakable authenticity in the way he speaks. Those demons were all over his first three albums (especially #3), but here it sounds like he’s finally conquered them. On “Ever Again” he refers to this explicitly – “They say that nobody changes/but I’m living proof they do/Because I found the answer/And you can find the answer too”.
Usually, people are referring to something like religion or absolute sobriety when they talk like that. What Andrew W.K. seems to be talking about here is the realization that suffering is necessary to the human condition, and that freedom only comes once you’re able to embrace the darker sides of life. That nearly every experience we can have as human beings falls somewhere on the scale of good vs. evil. I’m not exactly reading between the lines here; not only do the bulk of the lyrics seem to center around this idea, there are three spoken word tracks (!) that pretty much say exactly that. Life is about embracing the moments of pure joy, whether it be spending time with your kids, eating a slice of pizza, or blowing out your eardrums with the latest Andrew W.K. album.
That sense of hedonism is infused throughout the entire album, which I suppose is no surprise if you’ve ever heard an Andrew W.K. album before. The tempos are fast, the guitars are loud, the vocals soar, and every hook and chorus is exactly where you want it to be. The best comparisons I can think of are Queen and Meat Loaf, who also trafficked in this densely layered and theatrical “more is more” sort of thing that placed their music somewhere between hard rock and prog. The exceptions are “Party Mindset”, a slower track that centers around a simple hook and a whole lot of harmonies, and “Total Freedom”, which sounds like an attempt at writing a soaring pop song in the style of (say) U2. That second one is really a standout; between the atypical melody and the presence of autotune, it’s the one song on here that’s could plausibly be mistaken for someone else. Andrew W.K. claims the song came to him in a dream* as the great song he could never write himself. I guess that about explains it.
The album strikes me as having three different sides, divided up by the spoken word tracks. Side 1 is “Party”, featuring the singles “Music is Worth Living For” and “Ever Again”, plus the excellent “I Don’t Know Anything”, which is the simplest and thrashiest tune (perhaps a throwback to his early days). Side 2 is “Pop”, with with more manageable tempos and piles of hooks (check out that unexpected wonky bit on “Keep on Going”). And Side 3 is “Epic”, with “The Devil’s On Your Side” and “Break the Curse”, both of which suddenly shift gears in the end and launch into the stratosphere (there’s also the instrumental “Beyond Oblivion”, which is equally extravagant). It’s that final side that stands out on the first few listens, but the treasures are all over this one – it’s such an embarrassment of riches that a total corker like “The Party Never Dies” can go unnoticed at first. I’m a dozen listens into this thing and still have no idea what the best tunes are. It’s rock solid from front to back. It’s full of surprises, with AWK even getting a chance to fully air out his voice on the final track. After 12 years, you shouldn’t expect anything less.
Of course, it’s about more than just the great songs here; it’s a kick-ass rock album and a 50-minute therapy session rolled into one. It’ll elevate your pulse and make your ears ring, but in the end your life will be better. It’s like a self-help book set to music. Or if you prefer, a church service where the choir’s been replaced with long-haired dudes with guitars. There was a time when people would scoff at the idea of Andrew W.K. being this classically-trained savant whose message was much more profound than what you heard on the surface. I bet those people aren’t laughing anymore. You’re Not Alone is one of those albums that’s so ambitious and grandiose that it’s almost difficult to take seriously; but at the same time, it is clearly a major piece of work, and one that should demand some extra attention come year-end. Andrew himself described it like this: “I close my eyes, and try to imagine what the most amazing piece of music I’ve never heard would sound like, and then I try to make it audible.” Whether or not he succeeded is up to you, but you can hear that attitude all over the record. After it’s finished playing, it’s kind of difficult to listen to anything else. I rarely say this, but man, this was worth the wait.