Next to the Strokes, Hot Hot Heat was the most pop-minded out of all the bands reviving garage rock and new wave in the early 2000s. It made sense that after the indie success of Make Up the Breakdown, they graduated to a major label for their second album, Elevator, which found them broadening their sound at the expense of the hooky songwriting that made them successful in the first place. Some of the same problems crop up on Happiness Ltd., albeit for slightly different reasons. Elevator's disappointing reception seems to have inspired the band to return to Make Up the Breakdown's energetic style, while keeping the clean, relatively lush production of Elevator and continuing to experiment with different directions on Happiness Ltd. The result is a muddled album that gets even farther away from Hot Hot Heat's former glory even as it tries to recapture it. It wasn't just the sound of Make Up the Breakdown that people responded to -- although its charmingly high-strung vibe was as fresh as a band reinterpreting the best of new wave could be. The pure momentum and focus that Hot Hot Heat's debut had was a big part of what made that debut album so irresistible, and what is still missing from Happiness Ltd. So, while "Let Me In," "Harmonicas & Tambourines," and "5 Times Out of 100" (which originally appeared on the Knock Knock Knock EP) superficially recapture some of Breakdown's sound, they don't tap into what really made the album special. As on Elevator, Happiness Ltd.'s standout tracks find the band following their bliss, even if it doesn't sound exactly like what they did before. "Outta Heart" is wryly confessional, a ballad written by someone not used to writing ballads -- which is exactly why it's so appealing. Likewise, "Give Up?" and "Conversation"'s flashes of anger feel genuine and decisive on an album where too many songs are stuck in an emotional rut (the title track and the all-too-aptly named "Waiting for Nothing" bookend the album with unsatisfying moping). Meanwhile, the Wings-esque "A Good Day to Die" and spry melody of "So So Cold" show that Hot Hot Heat has the ability to pull off a more sophisticated pop sound without losing any of their bite. Commercially unwise as it may be, it might have been better for the band to truly commit to a more layered, mature sound on this album, rather than hedging their bets. Hot Hot Heat was a great band and they still could be, if they pick a direction rather than lingering at Happiness Ltd.'s musical crossroads.
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares