I started listening to popular music toward the end of elementary school. I wanted to become “cool,” and Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” and “Pump It” by the Black Eyed Peas were keys to fitting in, something I had little experience doing. I liked whatever songs everyone else liked, whatever played on pop music station 91.5 The Beat. I had no favorites, no actual opinions; I just followed the trends.
By middle school, though, I began to recognize my own preferences. I didn’t like “Beautiful Girls” by Sean Kingston, but I did want to learn all the lyrics to Keri Hilson’s “Knock You Down.” At that time, I encountered the Vancouver pop-rock group Marianas Trench, who in 2009 released their aptly-named sophomore album Masterpiece Theatre. I would like to submit—humbly, with obvious bias and lack of investment in the musical canon—that Masterpiece Theatre is among the greatest albums of all time.
The band’s debut album, Fix Me (2006), was fairly standard aughties pop-punk/pop-rock fare, positioning Marianas Trench as a peer of fellow Canadian groups like Faber Drive, Simple Plan, and Sum 41. While some tracks were certainly fun, Fix Me concealed Trench frontman and songwriter Josh Ramsay’s musical genius. On Masterpiece Theatre, his brilliance is inescapable.
Masterpiece Theatre is the first of the band’s four (and counting?) concept albums, that is, albums that tell a story as a unit beyond each song’s individual narrative. Each successor has pushed this model—and Ramsay’s impressive vocal range—further, first with Ever After’s (2011) journey through Toyland, then on a The Goonies (1985)–inspired adventure in Astoria (2015), and most recently the ghostly Phantoms (2019).
Much of Masterpiece Theatre can stand alone from the story that carries the album, perhaps moreso than on later Trench records with a stronger throughline. It boasts a “no skips” chain of melodic ballads and replayable jams. The singles from Masterpiece Theatre are characteristic of their pop punk era; “All To Myself,” “Cross My Heart,” and “Celebrity Status” sound like 2008, while the less upbeat singles, “Beside You” and “Good To You,” exhibit Ramsay’s exquisite vocal range.
The album also includes deep cuts into Ramsay’s personal history, like “Lover Dearest,” a wretched reminiscence on his teenage heroin addiction, and the pop-y “Acadia,” an ode to his childhood home in Vancouver. My longtime favorites “Sing Sing” and “Perfect” punctuate the rambunctious energy of the late aughts and early 2010s.
Framing the tracklist are three titular songs, one at each end and one in the middle: “Masterpiece Theatre” I, II, and III. The set of soaring symphonic rhapsodies with rapidly shifting styles, instruments, and vocal performances lays out the album’s story: Ramsay is creating a version of himself who can create a masterpiece, even if he is destroyed in the process.
Parts I and II further the masterpiece narrative on its own, yet part III brings the album full circle, interweaving lyrics from every track to tell a plot of love and self-ruin. Here Ramsay also begins the tradition of cross-album self-references by closing Masterpiece Theatre with a lyric from “Say Anything,” the first song on Fix Me. On subsequent albums, Ramsay has continued to tie his oeuvre back upon itself, although few instances are as impressive as the bridge of Astoria’s “Dearly Departed,” which references an impressive eleven songs in under thirty seconds.
In 2009, I loved Masterpiece Theatre because it had good, fun, popular songs. More than a decade later, I regularly listen to every Marianas Trench concept album, but Masterpiece Theatre, both on the whole and on its individual tracks, gets the most playtime. So, as much as I almost never listen to the advice of people on the internet, I think you should listen to this album. Maybe you’ll find a masterpiece.