One of the six covers of 30 Seconds to Mars’ fifth studio album features six words in bold-faced black over a bubblegum pink background — Kim, Justin, Jesus, Michael, Mickey, Donald. In tiny font, buried underneath this tower of titles, “six American names” is written. Just as usual, Jared Leto has made a choice that may confuse us. Isn’t Justin Bieber Canadian? Can a cartoon mouse even have a nationality? And Jesus — definitely not from America.
Still, these names are a part of the American framework, part of that mismatched, jumbled up, wonderfully messy quilt that is the American consciousness. That very variety is what 30 Seconds to Mars embodies and enacts in their first album release in five years. Leto and his band present an album featuring array of songs from different genres, with different subjects and different lyrics — but somehow, it works out, and it’s titled “America.”
The opening song, “Walk on Water,” echoes the tunes and rhythms of gospel music, with a chorus of what sounds like hundreds singing a timeless lyric — “Times are changing.” Easily the biggest sounding song of the album, “Walk on Water” tries to be an anthem for a generation and a rally call for hope and action. The lyrics reference raised fists, shouting patriots and a holy war. Then, roughly halfway through the song, all lyrical chaos ceases and the line “Do you believe that you can walk on water?” repeats until the end. Leto’s gritty vocals and the soaring instrumentation make the phrase sound like a chant — maybe a way to pump listeners up for the rest of the album.
In a dramatic shift from that grand opening, the second track — also a previously released single — is “Dangerous Night,” a lovelorn electronic piece from popular producer Zedd. Instead of talking about revolution and change, like “Walk on Water,” “Dangerous Night” discusses falling in love — in a dark, electronic, sci-fi kind of way. In just the first two tracks, 30 Seconds to Mars has made it clear that this album is not going to be predictable, nor will it make sense at first, but isn’t that the point? After all, isn’t that America?
The variety continues with “Rescue Me,” a near-ballad song of self-reflection and angst, followed by a slow-building track about a doomed relationship featuring rapper A$AP Rocky, and then hitting “Monolith,” an entirely instrumental piece that sounds like it could be playing in the background of some kind of space war. Not only are these songs different in sound and genre, but they’re also different in subject matter — at least on the surface. While “Rescue Me” and “One Track Mind” seem to be about inner turmoil and a broken relationship, respectively, the lyrical content of both still implies being a small piece of not just a larger album, but a larger world. “Whatever you do, don’t ever lose your faith,” Leto sings on “Rescue Me.” “Problems, we all got ‘em,” A$AP Rocky raps on “One Track Mind.”
“America” also displays its theme of variety through the artists who collaborated on it. Along with A$AP, the album also features Halsey as a guest artist, on the track “Love is Madness.” Along with Zedd’s producer position on “Dangerous Night,” 30 Seconds to Mars collaborated with electronic producers KillaGraham and Yellow Claw. In Leto and Yellow Claw’s “Hail to the Victor,” the song shifts from somber piano chords to electronic dance breaks. In fact, electronic elements find their way into almost every track, but in different ways each time, creating a unique equilibrium between often the anthemic and sometimes sermon-like lyrics and upbeat, danceable beats.
The idea of a sermon, or life lesson, seems to have been at the front of 30 Seconds to Mars’ mind in the creation of this album. Songs such as “Hail to the Victor” and “Dawn Will Rise” imply a possible level of spirituality just in their titles, and Leto sings about faith throughout the album. What’s interesting is how the spiritual elements of the album are situated within electronic music formats, posing the question of how to be spiritual in a digital age — how to have faith in a world turning away from human interaction and into machines.
30 Seconds to Mars have been essentially silent for five years, brewing this album in an alleged secret studio. A lot has happened in America in the past five years, and the album “America” addresses that — not just by mentioning the political climate, or the violence, or the technology takeover — but by posing a solution in the form of unity through differences, cohesion through variety. “America,” as an album, displays the notion that it is not despite the mismatched confusion that both “America” and America work, but because of it.