It Holds Up: All Time Low – ‘Dirty Work’

Posted: by The Editor

All Time Low’s Dirty Work. An album centered, comfortably, among controversy of sound and direction between both fans and critics alike. It’s a record that garners an aggressive opinion either passionately supporting it or venomously opposing it from anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the group’s discography. 

When Dirty Work is mentioned, it sets off a debate over the infamous and ever-so-dismissing phrase “selling out,” that never, truly, reaches a balanced ground. It’s an album that was not so kindly welcomed by the internet (let’s not forget that Tumblr users posted snapshots of their Dirty Work albums in toilets). It’s either loved or hated, and never quite fortunate enough to wade through the grey area of neutrality. In spite of that, Dirty Work stands far apart from the other works in the group’s catalog for better or for worse, and an album that, regardless of the general criticism, I believe still holds up as being one of the peaks of All Time Low’s talent and the pinnacle of Alex Gaskarth’s craft. 

Released in 2011, Dirty Work was the highly-anticipated album from All Time Low due to the pique of curiosity that came with it being the band’s first drop since inking a record deal with major label Interscope Records. 

Once the album dropped, they received waves of backlash for the direction and production that the group decided to go in that wasn’t familiar to their audience. All Time Low created a pop-rock record that was foreign territory to fans who were expecting more of the classic So Wrong It’s Right type roughness after the mixed reviews that the group’s prior release, Nothing Personal, received. Instead, Dirty Work was polished and cleanly produced, making many people stamp All Time Low with the big, block letters: SELL OUT before they took their interest elsewhere. 

Even with the fairly decent reviews that were coming in from critics, the majority of their scene’s audience linked the record with the word unfavorable. To this day, people claim Dirty Work to be a mediocre-money-grab pop record with shallow lyrics and lack of connection between the group, the sound, and their roots. For me, over eight years later, people are still missing the essential point of what makes Dirty Work well, work.

Dirty Work is not a senseless pop record, but a complex work of lyricism, experimental growth, and personal themes that surface-level listening drowns out. The record ventures through a multitude of layers discussing themes of inward exploration, tumultuous relationships tied to women but also symbolized by women, the juggling of new-found fame, and the journey of independent identification. 

Yes, Dirty Work is a heavily-leaning pop-rock record, but it was designed that way. A few of the tracks (including the entirety of the album’s artwork and title) was crafted to poke-fun at celebrity culture at mainstream pop. The cover photo of All Time Low standing, absurdly, in suits while Gaskarth pops a bottle of champagne, the picture beneath the CD that shows Gaskarth grabbing at pieces of a hamburger on a dirty floor while lying, shirtless, and even the tagline, “Get Dirty… Do Work” are meant to mock the obnoxious image that many, big artists sell. From the very first visuals, it is expected to be digested with that in mind. 

Everyone’s favorite track to hate (which I will always praise for what so many seemed to overlook), “I Feel Like Dancin’,” the lead-single off the record, was a blatant mockery of how the formula of mainstream pop songs are created. The iconic music video that depicts the group sitting down with a label head as he explains the superficial means of making an artist famous before the group is thrown into different scenarios that range from plagiarizing others’ art to product placement is, practically, screaming that it was an intentional mockery. 

Diving into the meat of the record, the claims of weak musicality and superficial lyrics are something that I will never fully understand. Flipping on the album just last night after a long drought from listening to it, in full, I instantly remembered how, absolutely, magnetic it is. From the very first chords strummed on the opener, “Do You Want Me (Dead?)” that leads into a unified clash of instruments and an infectious chorus that perfectly encompasses the energy of the record.

Dirty Work continuously snowballs into booming bangers, smooth-riding transitions, fun-loving sing-a-longs, sharp grit, soaring vocals, surprisingly, solid breakdowns, and powerful percussion (looking at you Heroes) that is impossible not to find enjoyable. Regardless of the few bumps that didn’t quite hit the same stride like “No Idea,” “That Girl,” and the young, fan-pandering “A Daydream Away,” Dirty Work doesn’t slow down or lose steam. Instead, it continues to burn vigorously until the record’s end.

Alex Gaskarth’s lyricism is at its strongest and most inspiring to date throughout Dirty Work. The way Gaskarth crafted the lyrics for this record gave me the motivation to continue writing, myself, in hopes that one day I could paint words and phrases as beautifully as he did. Not enough credit is given for the complexities of similes and metaphors (lots and lots of similes and metaphors), creative description, provoking symbolism, and overall structure that Gaskarth gave within the lyrical content to breathe life into Dirty Work. Songs like “Guts,” focus on the theme of finally stepping into your own skin and confidently wearing it, with lyrics such as, “Bold enough to fall flat on my face, but I walk as they crawl. Slowing down, it’s such a waste of time to let go. Tapping my fingers to the rhythm of a metronome, counting opportunities” and “to find a resolution, to be my own solution.” 

Or in “Heroes,” which intone, “I’m going to start a revolution of convoluted disillusion. I’ll lead a war with no conclusion, and, in the final hour, I’ll be a confident coward,” and “we’re throwing stones, though, we live in glass houses. We talk shit like it’s a cross to bear. The song begins as a track calling out an individual, or group, in society that is fueled with destructive behavior, but towards the end transitions into the track accepting the awareness that we all are products of toxicity, pointing the finger at ourselves instead of others. 

Even in slower tracks like “My Only One” that reaches the tone of disparity about knowing nothing besides the fact that this person is his only one, Gaskarth cries out, “wake me, early. I’ve been dreaming -dreaming that I’m only good enough for me and no one else” that is so pinpointed yet simple that it settles into the core of any listener’s stomach. 

The highlight of Dirty Work’s lyricism comes from “Under a Papermoon,” that was partially undercut in the sound department due to the heavy autotune that distorts Gaskarth’s vocals. Lyrically, I find this track to be one of Gaskarth’s finest creations. With a song that has sharp lyrics like, “At least we’re alive with just enough breath to truly despise the hills in the carpet, knots in the ties that bind us so tightly to our waking lives. I’ll build up a house. I’ll build up an army of cellophane soldiers, cheap origami to take back a piece of whatever’s left of that little box that beats in your chest,” 

The impressive flow that Gaskarth has while delivering the lyrics to the record is not an easy thing to do. There’re many times throughout Dirty Work where parts of the performance rides on the smooth presentation of the lyrics, especially in “Return the Favor. 

The most significant aspect of why All Time Low’s Dirty Work  is in how it has translated over to a live setting. Tracks from the record are always begged to be included onto set lists before the band heads out on tour. Dirty Work acts as a rare album that artists kill for in that it creates a crowd community between the fans and the band during live shows. 

There’s something about how each one of these tracks have their own live reputation tradition. Sometimes it’s the speeding energy that comes when one hears the opening notes from “Do You Want Me (Dead).There’s the spoken word break in the middle of “Forget About It” that has the entire crowd shouting about tearing their FUCKING hair out. Fans move their fingers like a metronome and chanting “LET ME GO!” during crowd-favorite, “Guts. Or the high-strung head-banging and screaming of lyrics featured in “Heroes’” breakdown.

Dirty Work forms a connection live when it conjures an infectious energy between fans and the band. It brings about that feverish spirit that should be felt when going to a gig and represents exactly what music was made to do. For All Time Low’s Dirty Work to evoke just as much joy and engagement in a live-setting eight years later, it proves just how much it does hold up almost a decade after its release.

Hope Ankney | @hope_ankleknee

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