Machine Gun Kelly’s last album, ‘Tickets To My Downfall’, played a huge part in kicking down the door for the ongoing pop-punk resurgence. Back when that record was released in 2020, the genre was dominated by nostalgia, but ‘Downfall’’s forward-facing blend of angst, anxiety and snarling guitars resonated with a new generation and gave Colson Baker his first Number One album in America.
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18 months later and the genre’s revival is more exciting than ever. Bright new hopes KennyHoopla and Meet Me @ The Altar find themselves racking up millions of streams, upcoming La Vegas festival When We Were Young – a alternative ‘00s celebration – sold out four times over with new dates added and huge pop artists such as Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish even borrow from the once-derided scene.
In less than two years, Machine Gun Kelly has gone from underrated rapper to the sort of bonafide rock star who headlines festivals alongside the likes of Metallica, Green Day and Dua Lipa. Later this year, he’ll be supported by Avril Lavigne and Blink-182’s Travis Barker on a 41-date US arena tour. New album ‘Mainstream Sellout’ is no complacent victory lap, though.
Here he teams up with producer Barker (who also co-produced the album’s predecessor), the snotty aggression of the record’s opening track setting the pace for what’s to come –confessional lyrics set against urgent guitar riffs and thundering drums. Throughout the album, Baker wrestles with his demons for all to see.
The frustrated ‘God Save Me’ sees him talks plainly about the death of his parents, aborted suicide attempts and how the media’s constant gaze plays havoc with his “mental imbalance”, without losing any of the scene’s famed buoyant energy. Elsewhere, the Bring Me The Horizon-featuring ‘Maybe’ is a sleek chunk of nihilism that combines arena ambition with a curled-lip moodiness, while ‘5151’ – named after the California law code for the temporary, involuntary psychiatric commitment of individuals who present a danger to themselves or others due to signs of mental illness – sets self-hatred against hook-driven riffs. In these instances, ‘Mainstream Sellout’ is a surprisingly vulnerable, complex record.
The playful ‘Emo Girl’ leans into the scene’s revival and is one of ‘Mainstream Sellout’’s standout moments, as Baker and Gen-Z icon Willow bounce off of one another. Starting with a sample from feminist cult classic horror movie ‘Jennifer’s Body’ and playing into the melodrama that made bands global icons of Fall Out Boy, it’s heartfelt and joyful.
As you might expect from an artist who went toe-to-toe with Eminem and confidently pivoted from rap to punk rock, there’s still plenty of bravado on ‘Mainstream Sellout’. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fury of ‘WW4’ is the follow-up to ‘…Downfall’’s ‘WW3’ and acts as a burst of cathartic rebellion (“Your teachers are full of shit / You don’t need to go to school”) while the title track sees him mocking all the backlash he’s faced from guitar music purist appalled at seeing a rapper on their patch. “’Leave the scene, you’re ruining it’,” he snarls on the bubblegum chorus: “’You’re no icon, you’re just a parody / You might be relevant, but just barely.’”
Elsewhere, on a blistering reworked ‘Papercuts’, Machine Gun Kelly compares himself to Kanye West during a tirade (“Y’all said that I switched genres / I saw the limit and took it farther / I’m a genius – could have made ‘Donda’,”) before he undercuts all the arrogance with the admission that “this song is for my damn father”.
There are moments where Machine Gun Kelly does play up tired rockstar stereotypes, though. ‘Drug Dealer’ ticks off every rock’n’roll cliché without a hint of self-awareness, while the groove-led ‘Make Up Sex’ is a world away from the humanising, tender moments of affection he displayed across ‘…Downfall’. Compared these tracks to the haunting ‘Ay!’ or the twisting heartbreak of ‘Twin Flames’ (which features both a whispered voice note from his now-fiancé Megan Fox and a screeching wall of noise).
While there was nothing inherently revolutionary about ‘Tickets To My Downfall’, its timing, confidence and intention made it something close to iconic. Musically, ‘Mainstream Sellout’ doesn’t stray too far from that’s record blueprint laid out, but lyrically sees Baker get more honest, more revealing and more comfortable in being uncomfortable.
‘Mainstream Sellout’ is driven by a relatable sense of angst and its outsider anthems will continue to speak to the millions who see Machine Gun Kelly as the saviour of punk rock. For better or worse, Baker makes no attempts to convert those who still doubt him, though. ‘Mainstream Sellout’ finds its author still refusing to play by the old rules, though it inevitably lacks the shock of the new that made …’Downfall’ so exciting. Still, it seems that, like the pop-punk revival itself, Machine Gun Kelly won’t run out of steam any time soon.
Release date: March 23
Record label: Bad Boy / Interscope