Since their breakthrough in the early part of the last decade, Chicago’s OK Go has gained most of their popularity from their innovative and trippy music videos. The trend continues today, as the band’s video for its new single, “Writing’s on the Wall,” has blown up on You Tube since its release on June 17. The single is the highlight of OK Go’s four-song summer sampler EP, Upside Out, intended to hold fans over until its fourth full-length, Hungry Ghosts, is released in October.
And it’s that single that carries the EP, a song so strong it almost reduces whatever effect the other three were supposed to convey. A Gothy-tour de force that wouldn’t seem out of place on a play list next to the Cure or New Order, “Writing’s on the Wall,” tells the story of a couple whose time has passed, their break up near, and yet they still seem to give it one last shot, the singer seeking “some pleasure” in his lover’s eyes, “if it’s the last thing we do together.” It’s a wonderful song, but fans have to be scratching their heads about the format: why issue a four-song EP of songs from the forthcoming album, a record already completed? Why wait until fall if the album is ready to go now?
Upside Out finds the band in a bit of a mid-life crisis. Now 12 years removed from its debut album, 2002’s OK Go, the band is completely on its own, having cut ties with original label Capitol/EMI in 2010. This EP marks the first release of new, original music since then.
It would make sense then that the band would look back, and look to the 80s for source material – the 80s, of course, being the golden age of the music video, and OK Go being today’s standard bearer in that realm. The other three tracks compete in similar aural territory as “Writing’s on the Wall,” but with lesser results. The opener, “Turn up the Radio,” is probably the weakest of the four songs, with an a capella boy-band type chorus almost lifted from a Disney act like Big Time Rush, and mind-numbing lyrics like “I’ve got to lose myself tonight/I’ve got to let it all go tonight.” All that is wrapped up in a synth and bass groove that just doesn’t work.
“I Won’t Let You Down” sounds like a throwaway from Controversy-era Prince, while the closer, “The One Moment” may be the biggest puzzler, and also probably serves as the best snapshot of OK Go’s current meandering. “The One Moment” swells with big 80s guitars and shimmering production. “There’s nothing more profound than the certainty that all this will end,” Damian Kulash sings. The song soars like a U2-styled anthem, but falls off the rails in clichés. You’re expecting a big statement from this song, but it never quite comes.
In many ways, it sums up where OK Go is now: makers of great music videos, spotty albums, and looking for what to do next. Those treadmills in the 2006 Grammy-winning “Here it Goes Again” video probably never looked so symbolic.
David Colodney studies poetry in the MFA program at Converse College. He has written for The Miami Herald and The Tampa Tribune, and his poetry has appeared in Shot Glass Journal and Egg. David lives in Boynton Beach, FL.