In 2020, One Direction is a distant memory and Fifth Harmony feels like a fever dream. But the groups of the 2010s haven’t completely withered away yet. While other successful acts have succumbed to certain members going solo, Australian pop rock band 5 Seconds of Summer has persisted in staying relevant. Their latest release CALM shows how they’ve managed to make it in the new decade.
On CALM, the band sounds like they have moved out of their first studio apartment and into a sleek new bachelor pad — a far cry from their debut record’s garage-style grittiness. If their transition hadn’t been as smooth, the change in sound might be interpreted as selling-out to appease a more mainstream audience. However, their satisfyingly linear progression into crisper instrumentation makes their evolution feel inevitable.
On CALM the 5SOS soundscape is dark, bold and surprisingly tidy; however, they’ve matured without losing sight of their boyish beginnings. The strut-worthy “No Shame,” for example, is a confession that the boys really do like the attention they’ve been getting. Wrapped up in shimmery production, they playfully admit “I love the way you’re screaming my name.”
Though their refined new direction was a logical next step, 5SOS still had to stretch themselves to get there. The album opener “Red Desert” sounds as airy as the song title suggests. All four members harmonize throughout the track — something you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else on their discography. On “Teeth,” lead singer Luke Hemmings’s breath functions as a beat. Overall, the effort they’ve put into experimenting while sounding polished can be heard throughout the album .
Still, CALM feels safe. The group walks the same lines they’ve drawn out for themselves since their beginning, just at glossier new heights. They continue to juggle sounding simultaneously sweet and edgy. They continue to build up acoustic production that explodes into euphoric pop moments. Most importantly, 5SOS continues to keep hold of their signature balancing act: being pop punk and mainstream radio-friendly.
Sometimes that means they sound kind of boring. On the first stretch of the album 5SOS comes out swinging, but by the last stretch they lose their momentum. “Best Days” and “Not in the Same Way” are sunny and soft, but easily grow drowsy.
Similar to the band’s sound, CALM also marks a gradual expansion in 5SOS’s thematic territory. A throughline is the exploration of chaotic relationships. On rock-leaning “Easier” and rollicking “Lonely Heart,” Hemmings’s relationship hangs by a thread. Even in the more secure-sounding relationships detailed in “Wildflower” and “Lover of Mine,” subtle hints at past mistakes seem to anchor all of 5SOS’s romance in uncertainty.
It’s unsurprising then that CALM navigates identity in a way that feels very 20-something. On “Old Me” the group literally “shout outs” their old selves to thank them for all the good and bad they’ve brought into their lives now. They take a step back, however, on “Thin White Lies” to grieve their old selves.
The final track “High” provides a summary: “I hope you think of me high / I hope you think of me highly,” Hemmings admits. When it’s all said and done, everybody wants to be remembered. The song is unassuming in its self-serving request and catchy beat — what 5SOS does best.
This album buzzes with energy, making CALM feel like an ill-fitting choice for a title. In this context then, the word makes a lot more sense as an acronym (the group members’ first names being Calum, Ashton, Luke and Michael). That’s why CALM can be thought of as 5SOS’s second self-titled album. They’ve grown up, adjusted their sound and gotten a bit more personal.
Like with any relationship, I think it’s hard for an artist and their audience to grow together. Trying to maintain the original spark that brought an act and their audience together may be even harder. CALM has proven it’s possible.