There has been a certain inevitability about the de-Rocking of 30 Seconds To Mars’ sound. They have always embraced electronica as being as integral to what they are as the guitars, bass, and drums, with Jared Leto’s distinctive tones up-front and centre. If 2013’s Love, Lust, Faith + Dreams (Virgin) advanced matters, progressing things from flirting with pop and electronics to full on stepping out, to (painfully) extend that metaphor, America (Interscope) is the lavish engagement party, as the band walk confidently off into the sunset hand-in-hand with modern, mainstream and minimalist pop-sensibilities.
This is also not to say that this isn’t distinctively and obviously a 30STM album. Leto’s voice, phrasings, affectations, melody and delivery choices keep things very much within the 30 Seconds world, particularly the subtly euphoric ‘Live Like A Dream’, which echoes ‘Kings and Queens’. ‘Walk On Water’, with its chain-gang meets latter-day Bon Jovi understated vibe, is an underpinning guitar chord or four away from being classic 30 Seconds. It does, though, have to be said a deepening relationship with contemporary pop is the overriding characteristic of America, for better or worse; on one hand ‘One Track Mind’, featuring A$AP Rocky is probably the least effective track, predictable and borderline cheesy with its auto-tuned and rapped interplays, though, by contrast, Halsey’s turn on the darker ‘Love Is Madness’ provides the perfect counterpoint to Leto, as she enhances the sultry mood and feel of the song to establish it as an album highlight.
‘Hail To The Victor’ mixes synths, sparse simple electronic hooks, and an understated chorus. It’s what 30 Seconds have always done, just produced and packaged in a slightly different way that concludes the journey that Love, Lust… confidently began. Meanwhile, in a show of effective album dynamics, the acoustic honesty of ‘Remedy’ absolutely stands out due to its bare, organic feel.
Expertly produced by Leto and Steve Lillywhite, America does obviously eschew the trappings of Rock music; distorted guitars are absent, replaced by cleaner embellishments and there are modern pop tropes in the synths that lead the way. Leto’s performance is more understated and less soaring than on previous releases, instead offering restraint and, on ‘Great Wide Open’, emotional depth his critics have accused him of lacking.
Leto has been keen to express an idea of creating a “sense of the culture we are a part of and the times we are living in”, an ambition not to be dismissed. Progression of a band’s sound can sometimes, justifiably, mean living in the moment and whatever your feelings on the man, myth and public persona of Jared Leto (and this, more than any of the previous offerings, feels the most like a solo album of any of their releases) or 30 Seconds To Mars, he is, they are, strong songwriters. How that manifests here is as a bridge between Rock music and contemporary Pop. Some may not want that bridge to be built, but songs like ‘Dangerous Night’, minimalistic and vocally dominant with quirky synth hooks, span that particular divide. This is pop, Jim, but not as they know it; a more alternative form of pop, yet still with Rock at heart in terms of dynamics and structures.
America may prove to be the stepping off point for many for whom the “Rock” element is what attracts them to 30STM. It should also, equally, prove a place to enlist for others as the potential reach increases once more and to write it off due to the alteration of sonic dynamics would be to undermine the qualities on display. Some of the production tropes may date this, personal taste may wish there were more guitar and less electronica, but the selection of songs on America is undeniably 30 Seconds To Mars, and undeniably of a high standard.
Alt.pop may just be their thing.