Bret McKenzie’s songwriting credentials aren’t something that should be up for debate. As one half of the duo Flight of the Conchords, he and bandmate Jemaine Clement proved they had a keen ear for not only emulating the sound of popular artists, but for writing a song lined with punchline after punchline (even when writing amusing ditties for phone companies). Granted, on record some songs might be a little more disposable than others, but when watching the duo on screen or live on stage (they ‘reunited’ in 2018 for an HBO special and accompanying live album, almost 10 years after the release of their last studio LP, I Told You I Was Freaky), it’s impossible not to get smeared into their finely-tuned, coy New Zealand charm and wit.
Both Clement and McKenzie have ridden a train of deserved success since their TV series ended, both starring in a range of movies from indie comedies to Pixar gold to Peter Jackson’s grandiose takes on J.R.R. Tolkiens’s classic books. McKenzie in particular has had additional success in the songwriting field, earning himself an Academy Award for Best Original Song for a song from The Muppets no less. An album of his own solo songs, then, seems like an inevitable part of his journey. The smirkingly titled Songs Without Jokes is McKenzie writing “songs that didn’t have to do anything apart from be a song,” reveling in the freedom to not have each verse be leading to a punchline.
There is still some humour here though. The wry descriptions of the titular city on “That’s L.A.” aren’t terribly original (”The sunbaked boulevards are paved with broken dreams / They tell stories that won’t make it to the screens”), but there’s a wink in McKenzie’s delivery. Elsewhere the jaunty swinging arrangement of “A Little Tune” caters well to a song that basks in knowing its own overdone lightheartedness. Similarly, jubilant jazzy horns on the despondent opener “This World” bring a welcome playful tone to the record’s start, even though the message is full of doomsday warnings (unclean air, oceans littered with plastic, baking temperatures). The way McKenzie sings his lines makes it feel like he’s either smiling through the horror or just resigned to the inevitable outcome. Might as well go out with a party at least, as the song does with horns aplenty.
Sometimes McKenzie does fall into the gloom though. The hopeless, monochrome colours of “Up In Smoke” next to a chorus of “Where do I go, where do I go / When all that I know is going up in smoke” paint a bleak image of wildfires engulfing homes. Mostly though he goes for the middle ground, almost a kind of fatherly optimism. “Here For You”, “Carry On”, and “Tomorrow Today” are all perfectly adept and amicable offerings into a songwriting catelogue, McKenzie reckoning with trying to live the right life and care for his family. But in themselves the songs aren’t likely to be nominated for any awards.
When some vim and energy are injected into the mix, the results are much more pleasing: “If You Wanna Go” has an infectious Randy Newman sprightliness; “Dave’s Place” tips its hat to Flight of the Conchords’ “Inner City Pressure” but comes with a Springsteen-like drive; and aforementioned highlights “This World” and “A Little Tune” stand out for their bright jazzy tones, being the definite takeaways many listeners will return to.
As a whole, though, Songs Without Jokes is a perfectly satisfactory addition to McKenzie’s musical career. He’s garnered enough clout behind his credentials to be able to release an album like this: inoffensive, perfectly likable in passing, but a few steps from his best work. He might not be making the audience laugh this time round, but they’ll be no less inclined to listen. Even without jokes at hand, listeners are just as likely to leave with at least a little smile on their face.