Max Bemis, the man behind the rotating lineup and often one-man-band of Say Anything, recently announced that the project was (probably) coming to an end. There will be no more Say Anything tours (for the foreseeable future) and earlier this year fans were left with one final album.
Since his 2004 debut studio album ...Is a Real Boy until 2019’s Oliver Appropriate (a direct sequel of sorts), Max has been in the spotlight as one of emo’s most fearless lyricists. As clever as he is cunning, Say Anything was an anomaly of the genre in a decade of bands that, to some untrained ears, all kind of sounded the same. His gravely, untrained voice spoke to a generation and the records that followed were increasingly experimental. Even beyond the early successful records, Max Bemis continued to be genuine. Beneath layers of snark and wit, it’s easy to forget just how much is public about Max’s family, religion, and sexuality.
For years, Max has ran Song Shop, where fans have been able to pay him to write a song for them. Max branched out into other side projects with Eisley’s Sherri Dupree Bemis (who he is married to), Saves the Day frontman Chris Conley, and Marvel Comics, but Say Anything has always been his lifeblood.
In recent years, he has opened up conversations about coming to terms with sexaulity and struggling through mental health issues and using art in a positive way to help. Like their contemporaries, Say Anything had been a frustratingly inconsistent band to follow in recent years, but each album has its merits and they ended up going out with a bang. With the possibility of Say Anything being done for good, it’s a good time to take a look back at every Say Anything record and EP and see how they rank today.
10. Junior Varsity EP (2000)
Max Bemis released Junior Varsity as his first EP under the name Sayanything when he was 16. It’s cliche to say that his age and inexperience showed, but Junior Varsity -- like the first attempt of many pop punk bands -- lacks the traits that would come to define Say Anything. There’s some self awareness to titling your first track “The Last Great Punk Rock Song,” but Max’s trademark wit and innuendo are nowhere to be found. And the vocals and production leave a lot to be desired. Even without a proper budget or studio, Max would soon form Say Anything’s distinct early style on subsequent early releases, but Junior Varsity just wasn’t there yet.
Junior Varsity is the result of a high schooler who wrote a few pop punk songs that sounded like the music he loved. You can hear the blink-182 so vividly on the bass line of “She Got Away.” You can hear the Saves The Day in the opening riffs of “Dreaming of Manhattan.” It is painfully and lovingly earnest on all fronts.
9. I Don't Think It Is (2016)
I Don’t Think It Is is an unrefined collection of songs that could have used some more time in the oven to live up to their true potential. Say Anything is at their best when they are putting a hard edge on melodic pop rock. This attempt to go more hardcore, louder, and less refined doesn’t do the strengths of their work much justice. The self-deprecation Max piles on of being a chubby, aged pop-punker was done before and better on Say Anything’s 2014 album Hebrews.
Rockstar indie rock producer Will Yip mixed the album, but the mix doesn’t do Max’s vocals much justice nor does it make up for the songwriting techniques that leave half the songs feeling like they could have used one more pass. Where the choruses should feel powerful, like on "The Bret Easton Ellis School of Witchcraft and Wizardry," they feel a little too stripped back.
“17 Coked Up and Speeding” and “Jiminy” are the most successful tracks at this stripped-back style, the latter boasting the most traditional Say Anything chorus of the album. “#Blessed” ends up being the highlight of the album, with a harmonious feature from Sherri Dupree Bemis and her former Eisley bandmate Stacy King, and some of the album’s catchiest hooks
Apparently, Max played this album for Kanye and Kanye played The Life of Pablo for Max, which is a cool fun fact, but it’s not the only thing these two albums have in common.. They both are inconsistent releases from beloved artists. On both, the personality of the artist shines through, despite their flaws. And they both feel like they were not quite ready for the public to hear, but slipped out anyway.
8. Anarchy, My Dear (2012)
Max wrote Anarchy, My Dear around the same time he was starting a family. Would this mean a happier, less angst-filled Max? Would he still be able to write the same way once settled down? Max tries to address these worries with Anarchy, My Dear, an album about love, anarchy and how he believes the two go hand in hand in his life.
As anarchy has long been a common theme in punk rock, Max also tries to inject a little more punk into this album than he had on its poppier, dancier predecessor (2009's self-titled record). Sometimes he nails it (when he sets "their champagne god on fire" in "Burn a Miracle," it's pretty punk), but most of Anarchy, My Dear veers closer to the poppy sounds Say Anything were making at that point in their career. “Night Song” is a jazzier mid tempo bop that evokes In Defense of the Genre’s “That is Why.” “Of Steel” doesn’t have the lyrical substance of much of Max’s previous work, but it is a fun pop song that is clever enough to pass muster. “The Stephen Hawking” is Say Anything’s attempt at a “Jesus of Suburbia” style rock opera, with sleek tempo transitions, separate sections with a continued lyrical theme, all of it catchy and working surprisingly well.
It’s around the time “Admit It Again!” -- a sequel to “Admit It!!!” from 2004’s ...Is A Real Boy -- kicks in that the desperation comes through. The track is most indicative of the grand flaw of Anarchy, My Dear, that it was trying too hard to recapture old glory. Slower tracks “Peace Out” and the title track “Anarchy, My Dear” are equally disappointing on the basis of how straightforward they are. The record tries to mix the angst of ...Is a Real Boy with the pop hooks of Say Anything, but it ends up failing to reach the heights of either of those albums, and never really carves out an identity of its own.
7. Say Anything (2009)
Say Anything’s self titled fourth album came out at the height of their popularity. To return to the Kanye West comparison, it is Say Anything’s Graduation. It is their poppiest album full of catchy hits, but lacks the depth of some of their other releases. Production wise, it’s polished as all hell.
“Fed To Death” is an eerie acoustic opener that is most reminiscent of the previous two Say Anything records. It’s hard to hate “Less Cute” and more specifically “more specifically I miss that way you spit on me.” And it’s easy to list the high points of the album. The chorus and screams of “meet me in the back room” on “She Won’t Follow You” are perfectly crafted for a crowd of screaming fans to latch on to. The use of strings is a perfect fit for single “Do Better” and the corresponding “whoahs” in the chorus make it one of the fuller sounding tracks in Say Anything’s catalogue.
The short story that makes up bridge of “Young, Dumb, and Stung” is textbook Bemis. There is a fullness to the production and instrumentation of Say Anything that matches Max’s intellect so astutely.
There are plenty of tracks that ooze with cheese like “Cemetery” or “Crush’d” so it’s easy to understand why many fans might rank this album lower. Say Anything is full of powerful, catchy choruses, but it’s almost too clean and leans a little too heavily on the “pop” side of “pop punk” for Say Anything, who are always at their best when things get weird.
6. Baseball: An Album by Sayanything (2001)
Baseball doesn’t aim to be anything more than a call to arms for “an army of Cusack boys and Molly Ringwald girls.”
The first full-length release by Say Anything, Baseball was a rough first glimpse at the potential of this band. It’s fairly predictable emo for 2001, but these songs are really well constructed. You’ll find more than simple verses, choruses, and bridges and will be met with surprisingly competent songwriting in both a lyrical and musical sense.
“Colorblind” is a banger of an opener. It starts off the album quietly, but slowly builds to the rocking chorus. It is the first sign we get that Say Anything knows how to sequence an album. Max brings his snark in full force to “Showdown at P-Town,” a fuck you to rich Westchester County punks.
“Resounding” and “Into The Night” show a tendency to be able to pace out a record, and not have the dial turned to 11 all the time. Every song has a loud section, sure, and it’s mostly the chorus. And some of these choruses still hold their own next to the more complex work of Say Anything’s subsequent albums. Even with all the ambitious work he’s done, the simple pleasures of “All My Friends” will get any Say Anything fan cracking a smile.
Like Junior Varsity, it’s still concerned with the problems of a high schooler, and there are a handful of mediocre songs, but the album is a lot better than you’d expect from a roughly-recorded debut by a high school student.
5. Hebrews (2014)
Say Anything's 2014 release has proven to be their most divisive. If a newcomer believed forum chatter, they probably wouldn't give Hebrews a chance, but it's Max Bemis at his most experimental and it's a success.
What's most initially striking about Hebrews is that the band chose to axe the guitars from the record. Instead, they used wicked string arrangements that somehow rock harder than any other modern Say Anything record. Max's vocals are the grittiest they've ever been, which works on some tracks and can be a little unlistenable on others. "Kall Me Kubrick" and "Push" are two of the heaviest Say Anything songs, with the latter essentially breaking down into a mewithoutYou song thanks to strong guest vocals from mewithoutYou’s Aaron Weiss.
In fact, just like In Defense of the Genre before it, the biggest strength of Hebrews is its features. Every track features guest vocals. Wife and longtime collaborator Sherri Dupree Bemis slays all the tracks she's on, and Saves The Day vocalist Chris Conley adds soaring backing vocals to the epic outro of album opener “John McClane.” But there are also some great contributions from the new generation of emo, like The Front Bottoms' Brian Sella on the title track, and Jeremy Bolm of Touche Amore on "Lost My Touch," Max's fuck you track to anyone who says Say Anything lost their touch.
Sure, some of the quieter songs just don't land like "The Shape of Love To Come" or "My Greatest Fear Is Splendid", but "Judas Decapitation" and "A Look" are some of the most overlooked bangers in Say Anything's entire discography. Oh and there's a Tom Delonge feature on a song about child molestation as a metaphor for anarchism and it works as more than just the novelty of hearing these two sing harmonies together. The pair truly provide fantastic vocal work, and Delonge’s nasal delivery contrasts well with Max’s deep bellow.
The brutal honesty, even at its most cringe moments, is what makes Hebrews work. As the title implies, many of the tracks have Max grappling with his faith in a more mature and open way than he ever has before in the music of Say Anything. It is his embrace of Judaism as a part of himself, just as much as the band is. It's a self-aware record about an aging frontman. It's a response to every criticism of punk and emo musicians who reach outside of genre expectations.This is an ultimatum of a record. You are either in this with Say Anything for life, or you get the fuck out now.
4. Oliver Appropriate (2019)
In late 2018, Max Bemis released a massive statement announcing the final Say Anything album would be titled Oliver Appropriate and it would be a somewhat of a sequel to ...Is A Real Boy. The message detailed the story (a queer spin on a Romeo and Juliet esque tragedy), and included open discussion of Max’s drug abuse and struggles through coming to terms with his sexuality. It shed light on a lot of what fans already knew, that many of Say Anything’s early songs were written as characters, satirical of what Max was seeing around him, a facade in order to not have to openly deal with personal struggles through his music. It’s hard to say how much of this is reflection, but it doesn’t much matter to this record because Oliver Appropriate functions without its narrative trappings.
Oliver Appropriate is a great Say Anything album. It refines the acoustic driven approach that Say Anything flirted with on 2002’s Menorah/Mejora EP and more recently on 2012’s Anarchy, My Dear. Yet, it’s got hooks for days and is the most instantly catchy Say Anything album maybe ever.
The story written in the original letter is as melodramatic as you might expect from an emo concept album and is not especially communicated through the songs. Yet, there is a sharpness that Max retains through finally being able to let go of self-awareness, of writing as Max. As Oliver, Max is lyrically sharper than he has been in years. He approaches sexuality and confusion from the perspective of a shitty, rich kid but conveys the mental anguish and emotional struggle beneath the drug use and destructive behavior.
The album is a follow up to ...Is a Real Boy primarily in terms of tone. “Pink Snot” is an unbelievably infectious off-kilter joke on the serious topic of drug abuse. “Straight-edge guys who turn to weed and beer 'til they all got divorced and they all grew beards. Not me, I'm a pill man,” Max sings of Oliver’s addiction, alluding to his own. Lead single “Daze” takes an equally laissez-faire approach to the same topic, in the form of a faster acoustic punk song.
“Ew Jersey” is as tongue and cheek as Say Anything has ever been. “Our band is coming back from our fake hiatus” suggests maybe the end of Say Anything is all a marketing ploy. “Send You Off” is a must-listen track from the back half of Oliver Appropriate for fans following Max’s maturation. Despite being extremely in character, it is the most openly he has ever sang about navigating his sexaulity as a teenager and as an adult.
The concise Oliver Appropriate wraps up at 34 minutes, with most songs clocking in under 3 minutes. The final track “Sediment” is where Max slows down to say a heartfelt goodbye. So goodbye, Say Anything, it’s hard to imagine going out on a higher note.
3. Menorah/Mejora EP (2002)
The first time I was heard any material from Menorah/Mejora -- the brilliant EP that Say Anything released before their breakthrough album ...Is A Real Boy -- was when Max played “By Tonight” and “I Am A Transylvanian” during an acoustic set at NYC’s closed but soon-to-reopen Webster Hall. It was immediately clear how strong those songs were, and it sent me hunting down a copy of Menorah/Majora right away.
A nearly perfect EP from this era of emo, every song on Menorah/Mejora kicks ass. The seven songs display the range of Say Anything, with dynamic compositions and Max hitting his lyrical stride for the first time in his career.
“Baseball, But Better” is an obvious callback to the first Say Anything record (but better), and, along with “You Help Them,” covers the heavy side of the EP. These tracks rocket off with killer guitar riffs before blasting into call and response choruses. They are pretty standard emo fare, but it’s the acoustic driven songs that lift Menorah/Mejora up.
“Walk Through Hell” is one of Say Anything’s early sappy emo acoustic love songs and their most iconic and recognizable pre-Is a Real Boy song. Its earnesty and imagery conjure love as a great adventure, one full of adversity and pain. It was a live favorite throughout much of the band’s career. It sits in stark contrast to the seduction of “By Tonight,” which is home to some of the quietest sections of any Say Anything song. The slow, calculated build of the song leads to the rare guitar solo from a band that often opts for lyric-stuffed bridges.
“I Am A Transylvanian” is the highlight of the EP and one of my favorite Say Anything songs. Max’s imagery is on point, likening the heartbreaks he has caused to vampirism. He lets his sexual desires, his thirst for blood, duke it out with his moral compass. The measured slow guitar intro makes way for a track that creeps up on you, before that second chorus bites down hard on your neck. The outro breakdown that follows cements this as an essential early 2000s emo selection.
If you are just reading this to see where I put ...Is a Real Boy and haven’t heard the earlier stuff, I highly suggest you check out these songs. Sure, the version of “I Want To Know Your Plans” is just an unpolished demo compared to the version later released on ...Is A Real Boy, but it’s a great little bit of history for long-time fans and the rest of the songs on this EP are gems too.
It’s difficult to say it’s better than either of Say Anything’s sprawling epics, but it is the tightest work Max has ever done and truly where he started to come into his own lyrically.
2. In Defense of the Genre (2007)
The longest and most overwhelming album in Say Anything’s catalogue, the guest-filled double album In Defense of the Genre is a time capsule of emo in 2007. Following up the iconic ...Is a Real Boy with an album featuring some of the best voices in the genre was the right choice.
Max’s songwriting and knack for creating an album with varied sounds is still intact. This album even takes it a step further, upping the number of tempo and key changes, and getting funky with the style. Like other early Say Anything albums, it is a work about breaking down the cliches of revenge, frustrating relationships, and knowing you are a terrible human and transforming those feelings into something critical of the industry.
Getting the supporting voices of Paramore’s Hayley Williams, Saves the Day’s Chris Conley, My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, Taking Back Sunday’s Adam Lazzarra & Fred Mascherino, Rainer Maria’s Caithlin De Marrais, Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba, that dog.’s Anna Waronker, Hot Rod Circuit’s Andy Jackson, Circa Survive’s Anthony Green, and even more guests added a richness to the record. It feels almost as if Max had considered each guests vocal style and subgenre before creating compositions that lend themselves to each particular artist. The sheer breadth of talent on the record speaks to the feeling of this genre as a family. Even at peak popularity, this doesn’t feel like an album brimming with high-profile features to sell more copies. It feels like Max got 20 of his best friends in a room and made exactly the album he wanted to make.
This album verged into other genres outside of emo too, with the dance beat behind “Baby Girl, I’m a Blur.” It was their next pop single in the vein of “Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too.” The jazzy “That is Why” is Say Anything at peak creativity, featuring intelligent use of tempo changes and a stunning outro that completely transforms the track.
Max is grappling with his religion on this record, but not in an anguished way. He sees its influence upon him as a person, but also recognizes the freedom he finally has to prioritize other passions. "Shiksa (Girlfriend)" is in reference to the derogatory Yiddish term for a non-Jewish woman, whereas Max uses it as a celebratory term. “Died a Jew,” despite being maybe one of the less memorable tracks, is a revelatory moment for Max, a time to admit -- despite not being devout -- that his heritage is still a defining feature of his multifaceted life.
In Defense is a marvel. Hearing “That is Why,” on the same record as the stripped-down “Vexed” is a sign of a talented and creative songwriter. There is a variety to these tracks that is unmatched by Say Anything’s other work. The joke “Hangover Song,” which features Anthony Green, is about 100 times as good as a song with the lyrics “I awaken to the bacon” has any right to be.
To put the cherry on top, In Defense of the Genre simply has some of the best straightforward rock songs Say Anything has ever crafted. “About Falling,” “Have at Thee!” and “We Killed It” are perhaps forgotten tracks from the back half of the double-sided LP, but they are infectious through and through and, like many of the songs on the record, have the ability to stay stuck in your head for years.
1. ...Is a Real Boy (2004)
“And the record begins with a song of rebellion.”
What is there to say about this tremendously influential album that hasn’t already been said? Holocaust love anthem “Alive with the Glory of Love” and by extension ...Is a Real Boy introduced most of the world to Max Bemis’s caustic wit and overflowing sexual energy. It showcases Say Anything’s creativity and confidence that came to define the band for 15 years.
Originally intended to be a full-fledged Rock Opera, the band brought on Hedwig and the Angry Inch composer and lyricist Stephen Trask to produce the album. However, those ambitions fell by the wayside due to the compounding anxiety Max felt while writing and recording the album, eventually leading to a mental breakdown that forced the whole process to be reconsidered. Those ambitions shine on though, resulting in a rock opera-like album that is diverse, giving the songs a variety of perspectives.
Musically, this was nothing like its contemporaries. From the opening of “Belt” and “Woe” it is clear these songs don’t follow any traditional formula and experiment with genres like math-rock, punk, pop, indie rock, and more, all with a theatrical spin. The album does not let up all the way to the raucous spoken word finale “Admit It!!!” Here Max brutally takes down rich materialists who claim to be anti-capitalist, and a handful of other kinds of hypocrites. It’s a critique of what we now call “performative wokeness.” It’s intense but the ideas hold up miraculously.
The melancholy singalongs awoke something in the emo youth of the mid 2000s. “Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too” and “Every Man Has a Molly” turned Max into a rugged sex symbol, an alternative to the Gerard Ways of the scene. And yes, these songs and “Little Girls” are some of the best work of parody in a genre that takes itself way too seriously, and yes they hold up.
“Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too” and “Little Girls” in particular were added to the 2006 major label reissue of the record, which came with the ...Was a Real Boy EP tacked on. This wide-release reissue, along with the radio success of “Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too” was a huge moment for Say Anything, where the spotlight came shining down on them more than ever. Suddenly, they were a band A LOT of people cared about.
In “Little Girls” Max is using murder as a dark metaphor for how he views himself as a relationship-destroying tornado. It acts as a commentary on the destructive nature of the punk rock lifestyle, or how it is perceived and used as an excuse for abuse. “Every Man Has a Molly” takes the same critical lens to revenge songs. The classic sarcastic line “you goddamn kids had best be gracious with the merch money you spend” examines the potentially toxic relationship between a frontman and his fans. The money, in this satire, justifies the sadness and strain that the band takes on personal relationships.
The record was the standard Say Anything was held to their entire career, both in terms of the adventurous genre defining style and the lyrical craft, and has cast a shadow over the rest of the discography. I don’t mean to hold it up as the singular peak of a dynamic career though. As the years passed, being a Say Anything fan became a lot to keep up with between Max’s side projects and the always changing direction of the band. Managing years of expectations, it was easy to consistently be let down. But I loved a lot of bands growing up in the 2000s. There aren’t many I can say I followed until the end.
It feels like an impossible task trying to condense what made this album such a massive hit and enduring relic of the genre. Maybe I have my nostalgia blinders on, but ...Is a Real Boy still holds up as genuinely great rock music and the best Say Anything ever produced.