10 Year Recall: Motion City Soundtrack’s Even If It Kills Me

Even If It Kills Me is Motion City Soundtrack’s best album.

That deserves to be said first and foremost here; and frankly, it’s a little controversial. Sure, it’s not high level controversy (read: not gun control or politics or what have you), but amongst fans of the band, there is little consensus about which album is the band’s best. As is often the case, there’s a contingency of people who still believe that the band’s debut, 2003’s I Am the Movie, it of non-stop wit and rapid fire pop culture references, is the highlight of their career. And while the album is certainly in the conversation, I think it’s backward thinking to say that the band released an album in 2003 and never got any better, in spite releasing five more LPs over the course of the following 12 years. The follow-up, 2005’s Commit This to Memory, is likely the album most cited by MCS fans, and it’s probably the band’s most successful and recognized album (ask anyone who was alive and aware of music during in 2005 if they now a Motion City Soundtrack song, and I can almost guarantee that song is “Everything Is Alright” off CTTM). This is probably the second-best answer (although sleeper options are both the band’s last two records, 2012’s Go and 2015’s swan song Panic Stations, or in other words, anything except the too-goofy-even-for-MCS My Dinosaur Life).

Still, in spite all arguments against it, I still hold EIIKM in the highest esteem, and I believe it’s mostly because it is the most complete record in the band’s catalog. It does feature some of its best individual songs (“This Is For Real,” “Last Night” and the title track among others), but the cohesiveness of the album is what makes it the band’s best. Other records struggle from the sort of ADD-like focus you’d expect from noted scatterbrain (and lead singer) Justin Pierre (mostly lyrically, although essentially all their albums have a sonic space they fit in best), but the band’s third album feels the most linear, the most thought through from start to finish. And while I’d hesitate to call it a concept album in the traditional sense, there is a narrative thread that flows through the entire record, a singular focus that weaves in and out of the first 12 tracks, culminating beautiful in the gorgeous and thoughtful title track.

Both I Am the Movie and Commit This to Memory are, by Pierre’s own admittance, albums dripping in self-destruction, mostly because that’s where Pierre was during the writing of both albums. Memory in particular is shrouded in duality, as the band has made it clear that half the record was written while Pierre was still a functioning alcoholic, while the other game during his treatment, giving the second half a more hopeful outlook on life. To be sure, that album possesses some of the band’s best songs (“Everything Is Alright,” “Hangman” and album closer, and maybe best MCS song ever, “Hold Me Down”), but the lack of cohesion holds it back from feeling like the most complete and best MCS record.

Motion City’s third record also feels the most mature sounding record (or at least it was to that point, as I’d argue that Panic Stations feels like the largest departure sonically), as they play with song structures a little more and the flow of the record sounds a little more thought through, possibly because of the narrative ties. Pierre is in a better head space, too, which gives the record a slightly more optimistic tone, although Pierre can’t help but give into his baser instincts from time to time (“Broken Heart,” for example, while sonically connected to the record, sounds more lyrically akin to previous records). Even those moments feel less negative, more “I can pull out of the muck” than “This is my lot,” and this new perspective grants the entirety of the album a greater weight.

There are two interesting things that happened during this period of MCS’ history, which I’m including as the 4 1/2 years between the release of Commit This To Memory and My Dinosaur Life. The first was that the hits of Memory led to increasing popularity for the band and they set new highs for Billboard 200 peaks with each successive record during this time (16 for EIIKM and 15 for MDL). This is interesting because in many ways, Dinosaur is a return to the sound and silliness of the band’s earlier albums, which would have led me to believe that Even If It Kills Me was some sort of financial failure, but this wasn’t the case in the least. The second was that the move from indie label Epitaph to major label Columbia after EIIKM barely moved the needle on the success of Dinosaur, which again is a strange backwards move by a band that had just hit an artistic high for album number three. The band would only get the one album on Columbia, and their last two albums peaked at #46 and #141 respectively.

I say all this because it just truly shows the rather bizarre career of Motion City Soundtrack. They are a polarizing band in a lot of ways, at least in terms of which album is considered their best work, but for my money, the now-10-year-old Even If It Kills Me will always be the band’s artistic masterpiece, as challenging and moving an album the band ever made.

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