Note: So... this kind of got away from me as I wrote it. It was intended to be much shorter. But here you go!
Pasek and Paul are musical theatre's favorite people right now after Lin-Manuel Miranda, and I just don't get it. People gush over everything they've done, while I kept listening to individual songs and thinking, "That was... a really boring pop song." They did three songs for the TV show Smash, the songs for La La Land, and the musicals A Christmas Story, Dogfight, and Edges, all of which I have attempted to listen to and then got bored.
Then Dear Evan Hansen came along, and people lost their minds. It was nominated for nine Tonys and won six (including Best Score). Knowing what I did of their work and what the other shows nominated for Best Score were, I was livid about them winning. Then I decided, ya know what, I should try this with an open mind. I should listen to the cast album a couple of times. After all, it's a show about depression and social anxiety. That's an important and personal topic. Surely that's going to connect with me, right?
Listening to the cast album has convinced me of two things:
1. Ben Platt is a national treasure.
2. Nope, these guys still can't write songs with any kind of emotional weight.
This musical and its content were almost guaranteed to make me love it, just for the sole fact that I connect so much to these stories, but the cast album is... a mess. What little works, works because Ben Platt is amazing enough that he can bring depth and characterization to these pretentious, awkward, stilted lyrics.
Their primarily problem is that I constantly feel they are trying really, really, really hard to be deep and provocative in their lyrics. Their use of metaphors is the worst. They repetitively smash them into the audience's head ("Anybody Have a Map?", "Disappear") or they hop around from one clumsy metaphor to the next without thinking about how they connect or what they're actually saying ("Waving Through a Window," "You Will Be Found"). At best, they simply have a character explain plot points that are apparently supposed to make us feel things ("So Big, So Small," "For Forever") but explaining their feelings about them in such cliched language that nothing about it sinks in.
A quick comparison here. Let's look at "Waving Through a Window" and compare it to my favorite song about social anxiety in high school, Joe Iconis' "Michael in the Bathroom."
Notice how few simple personal statements are in "Waving Through a Window." The first verse is probably the most coherent in what it's saying: "I'm afraid to speak because I might screw up so I don't and I run away." It's a little cheesy and heavy-handed but it's OK on its own. The metaphor about sunburn in the bridge is important because it's later repeated in an awkward way.
Then comes the chorus. I. Hate. This. Chorus. Like, I can't follow the character's thought pattern. The first verse makes it clear that he chooses to isolate himself deliberately, while the chorus makes it clear that he feels others isolate him, like he's putting himself out there ("I'm waving," "I'm tap, tap, tapping on the glass," "I try to speak") and they're just ignoring him. I also don't understand even a little bit what "Will I ever be more than I've always been?" is doing in the middle of this line, much less why it's followed by a "'cause" before it goes into "I'm taptaptapping." Is him tapping on the glass what he's always been, or his attempt to be more? THIS SENTENCE DOESN'T MAKE SENSE. And the whole chorus is muddy on whether he's inside or outside, because while he says he's outside, "watching people pass" definitely sounds like he's inside looking out, because who would peek in somebody's window and say "Oh, look at all the people passing?" No. That's something you say about people OUTSIDE.
The second verse is a blissfully clear message as well: "I used to feel normal, but something changed and I don't know where or how." HOWEVER. He ends the verse with "But every sun doesn't rise, and no one tells you where you went wrong." The phrase "every sun doesn't rise" is I think technically correct but it's really awkward phrasing when, of course, some suns do rise and he probably means "not every sun rises"... but the part that really bugs me is that we go right from there into the repeated metaphor about the sun being bad: "Step out, step out of the sun if you keep getting burned." YOU CAN'T HAVE BACK-TO-BACK SUN METAPHORS WHERE IT'S BAD IN ONE AND GOOD IN THE OTHER. They inevitably invite comparison and now I'm not even listening to the second chorus (which is still bad) because I'm just stuck figuring out if the sun that's burning him is from one of the other suns that did rise or what.
The bridge is just an endlessly repeated, ever so slightly varied use of the "a tree falls in a forest and there's no one around, does it make noise" phrase as a metaphor. Because we didn't have enough disconnected metaphors in this song yet. This part is boring but at least the music builds and Ben Platt sings it like it means something.
Then we finish with our awful chorus again.
Aside from the second half of the first verse, everything in this song is either an awkward metaphor or a generic "This is what happens to people" statement. So little of it feels real or true. It certainly doesn't feel like something anybody would ever say, it feels like Pasek and Paul made a list of metaphors and cliches that had to do with feeling isolated and said, "Sure, yeah, let's just make it rhyme and sing that." It tells us so little about the character.
Compare this to "Michael in the Bathroom," one of my all-time favorite songs. Immediately, from line one, we are in the character's mind and viewpoint. No metaphors to climb over, no generalizations to weed through. We learn in two lines what it takes Pasek and Paul four minutes to kinda sorta get around to.
These lyrics are so simple but so honest. Incidentally, this chorus would be a much better place to insert PasekPaul's awkward "Will I ever be more than I've always been?" line -- like look at how much better it fits with the ending of chorus one: "I'm just Michael who you don't know / Michael flying solo / Michael in the bathroom by himself." We get an actual sense of how Michael's (deliberate self-) isolation feeds into the grander view of himself as a person capable of doing and being things. He's just "Michael who you don't know." Will he ever be more than that? That thought works there.
The second verse, just like in "Waving Through a Window," is about how things used to be okay and now things aren't. But compare them! One is vague and generic and applied to the whole human race ("We start with stars in our eyes, we start believing that we belong") while the other is clearly about this one individual person while still inviting us into the feeling ("Memories get erased and I'll get replaced with a newer, cooler version of me").
The penultimate line is, "All you know about me is my name." That's true about Evan Hansen. But I'm pretty sure Michael and I are best friends now.