"Counting Stars" opens up with an organic, fresh-faced pop sound - just enough guitar, just enough synth, but not letting things go too far into the territory of overly artificial sounds. Before going any further, it's worth noting that every song on this album (all of their albums, really) is colored by a simple fact - Tedder has written songs for so many other artists that have found success - he is bound to un-intentionally (or maybe intentionally, it is hard to say) repeat sonic ideas and textures as he builds them with his band. Sometimes this works to his advantage, sometimes not. It doesn't hurt that right after a strong (if modest) start, the band kicks into the best song on the disc - and one of the best pop songs to come out so far this year. A quick peek of the liner notes yields little surprise that Benny Blanco is credited on this track - his knack for weaving disco-pop beats and breaks into the mix of more conventional mid-tempo pop songs is well known - and his touch fits the song like a glove. "If I Lose Myself" begins as a lilting ode to devotion, then settles into a calm, even-handed break - only as the last lines of the first verse hit "If I lose myself tonight / it'll be you and I / lose myself tonight" and the beat cranks up and all sorts of happy, effervescent images spring to mind as the song runs away with itself - and the transition is effortless. The switch-over is just as effortless when the beat slows up a bit and the verse repeats. This song may use the "repeated lyrics with music slightly altered verse to verse" trick - but with a tune this catchy, all but the most churlish of listeners would find themselves hard pressed to care. For the moment, perhaps, take a pause, and see for yourself:
The album never scales heights quite this giddy again, but that doesn't mean it gets bad. Far from it. Next up "Feel Again" strikes an odd balance between early Coldplay and U2 atmospherics - all while using these as the sprinkles atop a latter-day lite/slowed-down EBM pop beat. To some that might sound like oil and water, but they pull it off - further evidence of Tedder and his band showing their pop chops. "What You Wanted" could have been a leftover U2 ballad from the Joshua Tree era. It's times like this the band's greatest strength and weakness shows - they can write songs that echo the greats because they are fronted by a pop songwriter with skills - but those skills box them in all too often. Fortunately they pull out of this trap with another mid-tempo cruncher in "I Lived" - which plays out as a rousing call to live life to the fullest - really only with the ending-of-track "Whoaaa-oh-ohhh" does the pop referentialism start up again (aping Coldplay's sound, anyone?).
I mentioned earlier the album isn't all end-to-end glistening perfection. "Light it up" is fuzzy-vocal, fuzzy-guitar dusted party music with just entirely too much going on in the background at points. Proof that even the pop song craftsman who seems to have the Midas touch can falter here and there. "Can't Stop" is a song that can't quite decide whether it wants to be a contemplative ballad or a falsetto and/or auto-tune drenched (depending on how your ears pereceive it) yell it to the rafters arena rave-up tune. It makes it not necessarily a terrible song - just a song that sounds a bit directionless. Thankfully things kick back into high-quality territory with "Au Revoir" - a song that duplicates the thudding hook of "If I Lose Myself" only here in plaintive violin form - almost coming across as an "after-party" cool-down companion for that aforementioned catchy gem of a tune.
Closing the disc is a fine 2-part suite. "Preacher" is a light, gospel sing-along inflected pop tune. Whether it's Ryan Tedder waxing autobiographical or not, it's a pretty, uplifting song, with some clever compliments of the song's subject, like "He was a million miles from a million dollars / but you could never spend his wealth" to carry it along. "Don't Look Now" is a short 1 minute outro piece to carry the lilting strains of the last track, and album as a whole, to an end.
Other critics have made hay of how Tedder has forgotten how to write for his band. At times on this album it sounds like he has - but truly, all of these, as processed as they may sound - can easily be taken out of that spit-shined presence and turned into something equally powerful live - even if it doesn't sound quite the same as it does on disc. That and all the rest I've talked about here makes this a fine disc for aficionados of pop shine done with a tad more finesse than most - rough edges and all.