Review: Limitless (2016)

I first saw Tonight Alive / heard any of their music at Soundwave Sydney 2015. I wasn’t even planning on it, I’d just happened to be early enough to catch a random band before the ones I’d scheduled to see. I was immediately taken in not so much by their music per se (even though it is very good) but by their personas, particularly Jenna McDougall’s commanding stage presence. McDougall has such a level of self-confidence but obvious gratitude as well; humbled by her audience but not one to shy away from dishing out a wonderfully energetic, confident performance. In a word, she’s cool.

The band covered a Rage Against the Machine song that day too, and that’s when it clicked. Not only did they smash the song to bits, it was clear that this band really wanted to embody a similar ethos of breaking down a system. I could vibe with that – in fact I spend a lot of my time looking for anything remotely anti-establishment. So when I heard that the band was heading into the studio immediately after Soundwave, I was already super excited for what was to become their third full-length record, Limitless. The resulting album was definitely not what I was expecting.

“Here I am fearless… here I am unbreakable… here I am the greatest.” The band sought out to create something to the best of their ability and vision, and to that extent, they definitely succeeded. In terms of promo, cover art, singles, and general marketing strategy, Limitless soars (no pun intended) because it knows exactly what it is. Much like Tonight Alive as a band, this record represents no holds barred individualism. It’s rare that I look at an album cover, then listen to every song on that record, and feel it all fits. The songs are all unmistakably from this entity at this point in time for this band. There is no way to put any of the songs on an earlier Tonight Alive record and that’s really special.

But it’s incredibly risky to be this unabashed with this type of music (I’ll stop with the emphasis on “this” now). Not only is it completely different from the stuff they’d put out on their previous two LPs, I wouldn’t even call Limitless particularly radio- or even “outsider”-friendly, for want of a better term. The songs definitely aren’t the band’s usual pop punk/pop rock fare, but aside from “Drive” and “How Does It Feel?” (both promotional singles), there just aren’t very many bops. I don’t even listen to the radio all that much, but many of the songs – to me – sound like they’re reminiscent of something else.

Firstly, there’s a matter of their lyrical content. Almost all the songs on Limitless touch on similarly vague but oddly spiritual subject matter. In a way, the record becomes almost gospel-like – I literally listen to it and think of church music, and the fact people raise their hands to the sky at rock concerts and Sunday service both. Lyrics like “forever bound in your net of safety” and “I believe in the power of one” obviously lend to this. However, any religiosity possibly extrapolated from these songs could arguably circle back to the Self instead – for example, the idea of being happy in your own skin, accepting your flaws and embracing your strengths. That’s an ethos McDougall herself promotes through social media and that’s great. But it’s still simplistic and maybe a little too idealistic in its quest to be inclusive.

I’d almost call this “easy listening” as well, because instrumentally, only a few songs sport distinctive enough and fun enough riffs to jam to. Many of them sound like they could come straight out of a U2 record (coming from me specifically, that’s not necessarily a compliment). The aforementioned promo singles are really the most enjoyable tracks; both of these songs have a lot of personality. You can actually hear the band enjoying themselves. The more straightforward ballads also hold up fairly well.  “Waves” and “The Greatest” are really affective songs. The former is probably my favourite track on the record. It builds up to an explosive, emotional final chorus (all those crescendos), and lyrically it uses the (admittedly thin) “waves” metaphor in a way that reminds me of “The Ocean” from The Other Side. That’s one of the very few, and very minor tethers to the band’s prior era, which is a loss.

In general anyway, so much of this record just takes me back to the music of the 1990s and early 2000s. It doesn’t help that so much of the promo has featured McDougall donning Gwen Stefani esque braids (for the record, I recognise it’s problematic) and dressing in sports tees and baggy pants. Moreover, thematically, these songs about liberation sound way too amorphous.

I’m normally very supportive of bands changing their sound. Usually I think it’s absolutely crucial that they do. But I just wish Limitless had been so much more. Despite its title, the material itself seems so contradictory. I think fans would still appreciate the record – I certainly do to some degree. I can put some songs on repeat. However, there is no denying that it’s probably the band’s least thoughtful, least impacting record to date. Of course, it’d take a lot to top The Other Side, but considering how exciting the process of recording seemed, and how proud the band is of this record, it’s a huge shame that I can only love it in pockets. Tonight Alive seems to have pushed themselves very far into a corner. I don’t know if that’s exactly what they were hoping for either. I’ll be waiting for the next one instead.

★★½

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