Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life

Well, good God damn, I’m finally gonna get to review a bad album by a good band. I’ve come close a few times in the past, sure. I’ve reviewed disappointing albums by bands with great track records (like The Glowing Man); I’ve reviewed bad album by bands that I once liked way back in their discography (like Machine Messiah); I’ve reviewed bad albums by bands I liked but only in a stupid cheesy nostalgic way (like The Stage). But here it is: an album released by a genuinely exciting and creative band, whose last album kicked ass, and it sucks.

I mean it’s only on listening to Near To The Wild Heart of Life that it becomes clear just how much Japandroids’ career-long raison d’etre has been playing with fire. The band’s sold itself on a mixture of anthemic pop-rock and post-punk noisiness, and I mean when their last album was recommended to me under that description I figured I was set for a good time. I mean that was basically the formula that made The Dismemberment Plan awesome. And Husker Du. And The Jesus and Mary Chain. And The Pixies. And The Flaming Lips. It just seemed like noisy alt-rock and upbeat pop rock were natural bed-fellows. But you know, looking back on it… it’s a weird combination, isn’t it? It’s like soy sauce and pineapple: yeah, it turns out that they work well together, but you seriously wonder what was going through the mind of the person who first proposed that they did. And you know what? Maybe The Dismemberment Plan et al are just really really good at their jobs. Because Near to the Wild Heart of Life fails precisely because it’s a total mismatch of elements. There’s a Lou-Reed white noise fuzz to the guitar tone, but the vocal lines and chord progressions are upbeat, melodic and clear, and neither of those aspects are able to rely on each other. The noisiness is too cheery to be cathartic, and the vocal melodies aren’t clean enough to be pretty. If the screeching white-noise of a Dismemberment Plan riff was a hammer and Travis Morrison’s melodic singing was a hook, then Near to the Wild Heart of Life approaches the issue with a hammer made out of fishing line and a hook made out of wood, the first part ineffectual and the latter part unappetizing.

But then to be honest, Near to the Wild Heart of Life would fail pretty staggeringly both its indie-darling and stadium-anthem ambitions even if it dealt with them both separately. The guitar tone is fuzzed out a little, sure, but not in any interesting ways; at no point in the album did I listen to a particular chord or a particular riff and think “Yep, what I am enjoying about this is 100% what the guitar sounds like.” There’s a vaguely punk-ish energy to the whole thing, sure, but nothing particularly exciting; there are Sum 41 albums that conjure up a fiercer furore. But then the song-writing itself is also astonishingly dull. Riffs are just your standard uplifting major-chord progression stuff that you hear on the kind of bands Spotify puts on its automatic playlists, and there’s no interesting interplay between any of the instruments. Brian King’s vocals might have gotten a pass, as the man’s obviously a capable singer with a fine range, but there’s not a single vocal melody here that’s memorable, or distinctive, or creative. It all feels so vacuous: the vocals are at the front of the music, because they’re clearly the technical heart of the band, but the actual vocal lines are so crushingly dull that it just creates a big fat nothing in the centre of the stage. This isn’t punk meets pop rock, this is Razorlight being played through crappy speakers. This is One Republic’s interpretation of edgy. This is to fuzzy, noisy indie rock what Iggy Azalea is to west-coast hip hop, and the thing that’s surprising is that it’s coming from a band that cut their teeth as a genuinely exciting noise-punk act, not from a radio-friendly pop-rock act trying to get down with the kids in flannel button-ups.

Near to the Wild Heart of Life is, when you get down to it, an astonishingly bland album, and given who it’s coming from, that’s a pretty incredible kick in the teeth. Throughout this whole review I didn’t give the name of a single individual song, and you know, I’ll stand by that as evidence not of my ineptitude as a critic but of how totally devoid of content this disk is. Skip it. Go listen to Japandroids’ other stuff instead. With a bit of luck, they’ll do their homework next ti

Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound

Okay, so I’m a grad student with a beard whose primary conversation starter is his Sonic Youth T-shirt – it’s probably no surprise that I really enjoyed the new Cloud Nothings album. But let me be clear: while Cloud Nothings are 100% worthy of their indie darling status, Life Without Sound, perhaps more so than their other albums, is definitely worthy of your time no matter how shaved the sides of your head are. Not necessarily because it’s better, but because I actually think there’s some mainstream appeal in here (at least, Modest Mouse or In Rainbows levels of mainstream, it’s not exactly Beyonce). And while it’s not quite as intriguing as Attack On Memory was, it’s mainstream appeal that’s earned without sacrificing any of what makes the band compelling.

I mean don’t get me wrong: although the album does start off with a sweetly melancholic piano melody, that’s definitely not the mood of the day, and within thirty second the album’s switched over into the razor edged guitar work that will define it from then on. But at the same time, while all the ingredients for something pretty furious are there, the music doesn’t stride in guns blazing. The drums – which, by the way, have a gorgeous Bonham-esque heft across the board – are heavy and often tom-focussed, but it’s a distant thunder; it’s a storm rolling towards you rather than surrounding you. The guitars are harsh, but it’s the crystalline, fragile edge of high gain rather than the meaty thud of distortion, and the riffs aren’t fast or frenetic. It’s a saber undrawn, a gun unfired; it’s a tiger padding around you in circles, rather than attacking you. The result isn’t invigorating in the way that more aggro indie is, but then it isn’t really trying to be: it’s watchful, assertive, contemplative, but aware that it has the heft to back up wherever its contemplation leads to.

With that established the album paces through a fairly standard (if always welcome) trail of alt-rock influences. “Darkened Rings,” with its scuttling riffs, sounds like the comparatively soft end of Sleater-Kinney. “Sight Unseen,” rowdier and more magnanimous, hearkens back to Titus Andronicus. “Internal World,” with its thin melodic singing and chunky riffs, could fit comfortably into Weezer’s discography; “Modern Act” sounds like a cross between Big Star and the poppier edge of Sonic Youth. It’s probably a low-level criticism of the album that most of its best moments are fairly easily compared to other, more auteur albums, but honestly it doesn’t really earn much ire from me unless I’m nitpicking: the band is sufficiently more relevant to the phrase “take influence from” than “ripped off” that I’m not going to indict them for not being visionaries. I realized a little while ago that I probably spend a little too much time on this blog criticizing albums for having a lack of “direction,” and while I’m aware that what I’m about to say is something of a cop-out when it comes to fixing that, nonetheless – one of the real strengths of this album is that it actually has a really strong sense of direction. That’s true on the level of individual songs, all of which peak and trough nicely in both a dynamic and an emotional sense, but it’s actually true of the album when taken as a whole as well. As you get towards the end of the album, the restraint that characterizes the beginning seems to wear thinner and thinner; on “Enter Entirely” you get your first glimpse of some real guitar gnashing, and while that comes and goes very quickly (transition, I gotta say, into a really gorgeously melodic verse), by the time you’ve hit “Strange Year” and “Realize My Fate,” you’re dealing with a substantially more aggressive beast than you were when you first clicked play forty minutes prior, and you’re not entirely sure where the change really became noticeable.

Life Without Sound isn’t anyone’s idea of a wheel being reinvented, but taken as part of Cloud Nothings’ chronology it’s a worthwhile and important development, at once an exploration into more contemplative and introspective territory – and, indeed, a demonstration that they can do that without becoming maudlin or gloomy, or even without sacrificing any of their furore. It’s the first album of 2017 that I’ll probably end up owning at some point. If you’re into this kind of thing, consider this a recommendation; if you’re not, it’s probably as good a gateway drug as any.

Sepultura – Machine Messiah

Christ, Sepultura? There’s a band I probably wasn’t going to keep up with if I didn’t keep a music blog going. There was a time when Sepultura, no hyperbole, were the most interesting metal band in the world; under frontman Max Cavalera and his percussion-maverick brother Igor they blended Afro-Cuban percussion with thrash-metal fury and punk-rock unpretentiousness with astonishing virtuosity, and let me be clear, even if you’re at the time of reading this not into metal at all, I absolutely 100% recommend the Refuse Resist and Roots albums as masterpieces completely worthy out out-of-genre appeal. Then Max left, Igor left a little while later, and the outfit just became another sludge-groove-thrash metal affair, fine enough to headbang to but not really the kind of stuff you’d recommend to people who you didn’t meet in moshpits. And you know, that was a long time ago; I’ve been pretty out of the loop concerning which directions Sepultura went, and I shouldn’t really expect hold them up to a band with a largely distinct membership who they haven’t been in more than a decade now. So doing my best to judge Machine Messiah on its own merits, how does it hold up?

“Ehhhhh”, really. Can that be an adjective? I’m using as an adjective.

The thing is, there’s actually fair amount to like here musically. While I’ll always defend metal as a genre, I definitely feel like the strongest metal albums are the ones that resist the temptation to inbreed and actually experiment with other styles of music, and Machine Messiah does that a fair bit. There are nods to Brazilian percussion scattered here and there, which makes the drumlines more interesting, and there’s even a full on prog-rock organ solo in “Iceberg Dance.” Hell, while I’m not entirely sure that it doesn’t make me wince more than it makes me smile, the final track is a cover of a bit of the Megaman soundtrack, and sounds like amped-up rockabilly. The solo of “Phantom Self” trades bars between string arrangements and guitars, and when I say “string arrangements” that’s honestly as detailed I can be: whatever it is that’s playing (my guess is it’s a Brazilian instrument) it’s not a cello or a violin, it’s eerier and smoother than both, and I give massive props to the album for introducing me to something I’ve never heard before. The album gets some nice mileage out of keyboards as well, which often end up sounding more like Dracula B-movie soundtracks than anything in metal; you can almost see a black satin cape flickering behind the solo of “Resistant Paradise.” Altogether it telegraphs pretty clearly that this is a band that’s both happy to move away from metal clichés, and also not afraid to laugh at itself while doing so. If only more metal bands could learn from that example.

So what’s the problem? Well… surprisingly, it’s the metal. See, whereas a better forward-thinking metal band like Mastodon or Deafheaven would work to blend the genre-flirtations with the metal tropes, Sepultura flick between them. Yes, there are heavy guitars backing the proggy organs and melodramatic keyboards, but those heavy guitars would’ve played the exact same thing if they’d just had another heavy guitar soloing on top of them. On top of that, the weird instruments never more like embellishments of the song than core pieces: they come, they’re kind of nice, and then they vanish. And the problem is – and this is weird, given how long Sepultura have been doing this – the more straight up metal sections that separate them are pretty much universally awful. Andreas Kisser is a fine guitarist, and there’s some catharsis to be gleaned from his churning, knifelike tone, but stylistically he’s here caught in the no-man’s-land between Slayer and Pantera, too slow to be as invigorating as the for but waaaaaaaaay too lacking in interesting riff ideas to be as compelling as the latter. Derrick Green does a solid enough turn on vocals, and I like the chanting he starts the album off with on the title track, but he just sounds like any other support-band level thrash vocalist: fine enough and suitable, but not actually interested in screaming or shouting in any particularly interesting ways. The result is that each song feels like a microcosm of the filler-filler-single-filler-filler-single dynamic of a manufactured pop album, interesting ideas sparsely spread out amid uninspired, boring riffs.

And you know, maybe it’s not so unfair for me to avoid comparing Machine Messiah to the best Sepultura albums, because the band at their golden age didn’t just set the bar high for themselves, they set the bar high for metal as a whole. We know how to use strange instruments and alternate percussion styles in metal now. You don’t need to have either Cavalera brother in your band to know that, you can buy a copy of Roots from any record shop with a halfway decent metal selection and learn it. Ultimately, Machine Messiah isn’t offensive or contemptable enough to get angry at, but it’s a complete non-event. If you’re doing anything else while you’re listening to it, you won’t notice any of the interesting things it does. If you aren’t, you’ll be bored out of your skull well before it does any of them.

The Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody

It’s finally happened: The Flaming Lips have gone full background-music on us.

I mean that at first might not really seem like news. The Flaming Lips have always been about weird textures and shimmery soundscapes, and there were outright ambient interludes in Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and Embryonic. But thinking back over the last few albums, it is notable that the rocking sections are beginning to fade out into the background. On The Terror, there wasn’t a memorable riff in sight. Now, there isn’t even a riff.

To be clear, Oczy Mlody isn’t a bad album, although for the record everything I do say above I do say as a negative point. It is what it is: atmospheric, unobtrusive, patient, not really seeking to sucker you in but content to providing a nice sonic perfume. And you know, on that level, it succeeds pretty well. Unlike similarly vacuous background-semi-ambient albums I’ve savaged on here – Ape In Pink Marble, Starboy – there are actually some interesting sounds on here: by the time you’ve finished the title track and “How??” and are midway through “There Should Be Unicorns” you’ll have heard vaporous synths, oozing basslines and a few things that sound like printers and dial-up modems attempting to sing Radiohead. Although the album doesn’t ever get melodic, it also takes time to give the vaguest suggestions of shape to its weirdness: the rapid whiteboard-squeaking of “The Castle” is my favourite example. What really elevates it from there are the notes of genuine danger. There’s a secretive edginess in the sparkling high notes and slithering low notes (side note: if nothing else, I’m impressed that this album really does often leave me completely clueless as to which instrument is playing what) of “There Should Be Unicorns”; the quietly mournful arpeggios of “Listening to the Frogs with Demon Eyes” suggests recent, inexplicable misfortune. The climax of “Do Glowy” I’m pretty sure is a disco remix of a ship alarm noise from one of the lesser Alien films. “One Night While Hunting For Faeries and Witches and Wizards to Kill”, in addition to sporting some pretty nifty beluga-whale-esque noises, does genuinely sound like the kind of music you could imagine hunting something to. It’s the spaciest of space-rock – so wedded to the “space”, indeed, that there isn’t much room left for the “rock” – but it understands that nebulas, stellar clusters and Saturn rings only make space pretty: it’s the chilling void between them that makes space compelling.

And you know, I’m not gonna say the Flaming Lips should sacrifice that for the sake of riffing. What I want to know is where are the lyrics in all this? It’s not that the album’s instrumental, but it might as well be: although Wayne Coyne’s voice still has the whole indie-comic colourful sweetness to it, it’s lost the plaintive avant-storyteller edge, and the result is that it just sounds like one of the other instruments, and the lyrics, brilliant or no, are mostly inaudible. This might sound like a minor quirk but honestly it’s something I’m noticing more and more; it’s the reason why The Antlers’s Hospice is an infinitely more compelling album than Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. If you want to make your music soft and mood-lit, your vocals should be the one thing in there that isn’t vague, because if your music isn’t moving, the narrative is going to have to. I know that The Flaming Lips can do storytelling: Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots at the end of the day wasn’t any more subtle or philosophical a meditation on impermanence and death than the average self-deprecating internet meme, but it presented itself so charmingly and with such contrapuntally twee lines and through such arresting imagery that I was carried along for the ride anyway.

Oczy Mlody is a good album, but it’s not a massively ambitious one, and while I’d definitely say it’s above average as background music goes, I definitely wouldn’t recommend it if you’re in a situation where you want to concentrate on what you’re listening to. If Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was a computer screen with Netflix loaded up on the day the new Bojack Horseman season is released, than Oczy Mlody is a pretty scented candle. A nice smelling scented candle, to be sure, with an odd but effective bitter undercurrent that makes you genuinely a bit more excited to breathe in than usual, but at the end of the day you still wouldn’t invite all your friends over to eat pizza and stare at it.

 

The Ten Best Albums of 2016

Aw yeah, time for the best part of any critic’s calendar. 2016 wasn’t a fantastic year in music in the same way as 2015 was, but then to be fair 2016 wasn’t a fantastic year in many things, and I have a newfound nostalgia for last year’s greatest moments: “To Pimp a Butterfly,” “Divers”, “My Cat Still Being Alive,” “Donald Trump Not Being President.” Still as the cold wind whips up and the eerie Dark Souls narrator voice begins to play over our news reports, why not huddle around the campfire and obsess a little around what sparks we can find?

10 – Swans, The Glowing Man

The Glowing Man was the most human-sounding record that the Swans have put out in a while, and to be honest that’s probably part of why it was such a big ol’ disappointment: to err is human, to make The Seer and To Be Kind is divine. But there’s a plaintive, haunting pathos to the gothic grandeur of the whole affair, and while its rougher and wilder moments are too few and far between, by god, are you in the hands of the masters when they come.

9 – PJ Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project

A worthy if not quite equal follow up to Let England Shake, Hope Six is about the most straight-up vanilla rock thing that Harvey’s done since Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Honestly, while I can’t believe I’m saying this about an album that sounds like Springsteen that comes to us from an artist whose early work sounded like Slint, the soul at the core of this is just classic Polly Jean: detached, eccentric, observant. And as I discovered this year, “The Ministry of Defence” might just be the best live anthem to grace Harvey’s catalogue since “Long Snake Moan.”

8 – Dinosaur Jr, Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not

This has been a year for the breaching of comfort zones: David Bowie finally went full-on post punk, Nick Cave went ambient, Beyonce went political. Dinosaur Jr, though, have done exactly what they’ve always done, and what they’ve always done is fucking great: deafening feedback, swaggering guitar solos and pounding grooves. Murph and Mascis might be the two most underrated performers on their instruments in the Rock Canon. Has that been more clear than on this record? Yes. Is it clear enough here? Hell yes.

7 – Kendrick Lamar, Untitled Unmastered

Kendrick Lamar might be the cleverest man working in music at the moment, and while it’s easy to see why the tracks from Untitled Unmastered didn’t make it onto To Pimp a Butterfly – they’re rambling, they’re a touch vacuous, they’re not very well structured – even if taken as nothing more than Lamar’s thoughts jotted down, it’s still 100% worth listening to. If To Pimp a Butterfly was as complex, political and powerful as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, then Untitled Unmastered is equivalent to the polemics about McCarthyism that Miller noted in the preface to the Penguin edition.

6 – Frank Ocean, Blonde

Blonde isn’t quite such an accessible album as Channel Orange was – it goes full on musique concrete at the end – but it’s good in exactly the same ways: witty, original, consistently fresh and beautifully sung.

5 – Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool

I still maintain that A Moon Shaped Pool is the rockiest album that Radiohead have put out in a while, but it’s not the kind of rock they played before. Much like The King of Limbs, A Moon Shaped Pool is gentle, polite and introspective. Unlike most of The King of Limbs, though, there’s a warmth that makes the prettiness really glow. Importantly, as sad an album as it is, it sounds like it’s made peace with itself. And as I’ll say again later on in this list, that counts for a lot at the moment.

4 – David Bowie, Blackstar

R.I.P, Starman. Blackstar is the moment when it really became clear just how much of a Scott Walker devotee that Bowie was, but as it’s turned out, that’s not down to any lack of originality – it’s because both men (Walker out of curiosity, Bowie out of circumstance) stare the void in the face. Blackstar has an astral, almost Lovecraftian spookiness to it, but there’s a real majesty to the whole affair: if the knifelike riffing, screeching horns and weirdly spiralling vocal lines ever make it sound alien, it won’t be long before you realize that it’s spelunking some tunnels in your mind you didn’t know were there.

3 – A Tribe Called Quest, “We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service”

Feelings are running high this year, and lives are running short. That will and should always affect everyone’s experience of music, and it’s definitely affected what music I’ve ended up looking on most fondly this year. But if, in sixty years’ time, we live in a world in which politics, social injustice and human mortality have all been effectively solved, and someone digs up this list looking for music recommendations, this is the album that they’ll probably enjoy most, because while this is as politically potent as pretty much every great hip hop album, it’s also just a fucking blast on a purely sonic level: strong grooves, witty lyrics, clever and unpredictable samples. It’s not the greatest artistic statement of 2016 that happened to be a musical album, but it’s probably its greatest musical album.

2 – Beyonce, “Lemonade”

Lemonade is an awe inspiring record, and I don’t use that word interchangeably with “great.” In her accounts of infidelity and injustice, Beyonce is absolutely laying her soul bare here, but on even clearer display than the pain is the power she’s demonstrated in overcoming it. The album careens from heartbreak to rebellion to revolution, and Beyonce makes a truly formidable protagonist through it all. It’d be enough to recommend the album even if “Daddy Lessons” wasn’t her finest vocal performance, or if “Freedom” wasn’t Kendrick Lamar’s best guest appearance. But astonishingly, all those things are true too.

1 – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Skeleton Tree”

You know in my initial draft for my review of Skeleton Tree, I really didn’t write very well of it. And there’s still an awful lot wrong with this record: messy vocal lines, uncomfortably ill-metred choruses, a complete lack of musical direction and development. But god, there is real agony here, and every drop of it comes across. At the end of the day, the number one slot doesn’t go the best conceived album, it goes to the one that I end the year unable to stop thinking about, and no album has sat quite so heavily in my thoughts these past few months and this one. The final track, “Skeleton Tree,” offers a thin, almost sarcastic glimmer of hope (“It’s alright now” is the final line of the album) and what’s come to be so powerful about that is that it isn’t really justified with anything. There isn’t a solution to the darkness in this album. There’s just acceptance. There’s just moving forward, even if you’re just stumbling forward in the dark with your hands out in front of you. There’s just acknowledging that even a joyless sunrise gives you an excuse to get out of bed. And sometimes, when “nothing is for free,” a musician like Nick Cave being completely frank about that is exactly what you need.

Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!

Awaken, My Love is sort of like the funk music version of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and if you want me to transmute that into yay-or-nay terms: definitely a strong album, gets bonus points for hitting a few of my personal sweet spots, but occupies a fairly grey area between “taking cues from what worked before it” and “being pretty derivative overall”, and is definitely at its most enjoyable on the first couple of listens.

What’s being revived this time is real old-school funk music, and let me tell you I am one hundred percent on board that train. Regular readers/friends know I’m pretty into modern Soul/R&B music as a whole, but while I’m certainly not going to look askance at year which saw (really good) releases by not one but two Knowles sisters, it feels like a while since that scene has scratched my itch for slightly grittier sounding fare. Although I’m not 100% convinced that Donald Glover has quite enough ideas to sustain a full album on here, the zeal with which he seems to have set out to scratch that itch here is overwhelming. I first realized I was solidly in for a good time here when I got about two years into “Me And Your Mama”, and out of the twinkling synths just oozed this fat, distorted wodge of sound, which I realized was a mixture of fuzz-guitar, gospel-choir singing and Glover’s cracking vocal cords only after a few minutes of stunned awe. Things didn’t get any less earthy from there. “Have Some Love” is free percussion and a mass of hollering vocals. “Riot” sets skittering pianos over descending chord progressions, and sounds always on the edge of collapse. Although the production are significantly higher, the most obvious shoutout here is Sly Stone: there’s that same sense of rickety, shambolic chaos, of a vast army of singers and instrumentalists all held together with string.

I’ve heard a few criticisms leveled at Glover’s singing here, but honestly the vocals are the most consistently fantastic thing on the album. Glover’s definitely not got the vocal chops of some of his contemporaries, and he isn’t able to give every note here the richness it sometimes warrants, but honestly: the man’s voice may crack and screech, but the man’s an absolute master of making those breaks exhilarating rather than embarrassing. Sometimes it’s satisfying on its own. Other times he blends his own singing in with his backing vocals, and divides up the labour: the choir of gospel singers behind him provide the power, while his cracked hollering gives the texture. It’s not a success across the board – there’s a slightly irritating squeak on the more intimate “Redbone”, and “California” sees him affect a weird, rubbery squawk which doesn’t work at all – but when it works, it’s downright thrilling.

The big problem with Awaken My Love is that it doesn’t really quite manage to do anything with the momentum that it builds. It’s not that there’s an absence of motifs, quite the opposite if anything – each instrumentalist is always finding interesting little melodies to throw onto the pile. It’s more that with a few exceptions (the riffs in “Me And Your Mama”, the rambunctious main riff of “Boogieman”, the bizarre staccato solo of “Zombies”) all of them feel whisked away into the aether too soon after they arrive, or else too much at the edges of the sound to really make their presence known. This isn’t by any means a deal breaker, but it’s what keeps a good album from being potentially great . I suppose to put it in comparative terms – you know that melody at the end of the chorus of D’Angelo’s “1000 Deaths?” Or the one at the end of the chorus of Erykah Badu’s “Penitentiary Philosophy?” There’s not really anything like that in here. And granted, that’s a really high standard to hold any album to, but it’s frustrating because honestly if a few of those hooks had been put in place this album really could have rivaled them.

Awaken, My Love is a really fun little album, and there are definitely a few tracks I hope to hear coming out of a few student flat windows accompanied by bright lights and drunken laughter once finals season wraps up. It’s a throwback, ultimately, not really bringing much new to the table but making up for it by managing to imitate some pretty hard to imitate thing. If you like Star Wars, The Force Awakens gives you essentially the same experience as A New Hope except more slickly produced and a little less fresh. And if you like Sly Stone and James Brown, Awaken, My Love will probably appeal on the same grounds.

The Weeknd – Starboy

Starboy opens with a Daft Punk guest appearance, closes with a Daft Punk guest appearance, and spends pretty much all of the intervening time wandering around in search of another Daft Punk guest appearance. I mean there’s some three act structure for you: the album starts well and spends most of its length wandering about in search of what initially made it compelling. Yeah, The Weeknd kind of dropped the ball on this one.

I’m not just being flippant here; most of the problems that Starboy have are the kind of vices that Daft Punk have built their career on making into virtues. In terms of pure sonic aesthetics this is your fairly standard Weeknd sound, don’t get me wrong: hazy, miasmic soul, the kind that probably sound good played with bright lights and smoke machines. It’s an approach that works well for atmosphere, but atmosphere on its own is scene-setting, not compelling, and whereas in the past (by which I mean “on House of Balloons”) the Weeknd drove things forward with twitchy avant-garde flourishes and nods to “psychedelic ______”, Starboy wants to go for something more straightforward. The sex songs are playful rather than dramatic; the climaxes, like the pummelling “False Alarm”, sound like the ghosts of pop-punk riffs.

Now, when Daft Punk steps in, this works pretty well, because Daft Punk are excellent at making that kind of super-straightforward stuff pretty as all hell.  On the opening track, “Starboy”, and the closing track, “I Feel It Coming”, you get a pretty good sense of what kind of thing The Weeknd was going for. The pianos in “Starboy” sit just high enough in the mix to sound gorgeous; the vocal line is dense enough to turn heads but patient enough not to be overwhelming. The ticking of the groove adds texture, but the actual sound is a gentle enough putt-putt that it doesn’t end up being aggressive. All of the balances are struck just right, and the result, although not as arresting as even the weaker tracks on House of Balloons, is pretty and catchy.

But pretty much everywhere else, the album just becomes untethered. Abel Tesfaye ironically seems to suffer from being too competent a singer; his voice whoops, croons and slides up the register so effortlessly and freely it’s difficult to discern the necessary arc that forms the hook. The lack of structure doesn’t help matters: in most places, the album isn’t interested in building tension, let alone releasing it, and doesn’t really give much to make up for the blandness of its grooves. When the album does get a good upbeat rollick going, things do improve – there’s a hand-clapping magnanimity to “A Lonely Night” and “False Alarm”, I’ll grant – but these aren’t so much gems in a slog as they are five-pence pieces in a slog. What emotions there are are put forward in the broadest, most impersonal terms. The playfulness of the album’s sexuality comes across like dudebro self-aggrandizement rather than drama or eroticism. When there’s actual romance involved, Tesfaye doesn’t cover any emotional turmoil more interesting than you can get out of a good week on Tinder. The only place where the album really comes close to interesting on “Sidewalks”, which features a guest performance from the always-fantastic Kendrick Lamar over needling string bends, and hearkens back to The Weeknd’s earlier, better work.

Really, Starboy suffers because it isn’t sure how pop it’s going. Nearly all of the idiosyncrasies that made House of Balloons such a great album have been stripped away seemingly in service of a more direct, danceable sound, but save for when Daft Punk do their thing it’s hard to imagine an album being less exhilarating. If nothing else, the album never sounds aggressively unpleasant – the chord progressions are nice enough, I suppose – but then sixty minutes (which is still nine minutes shy of the length of this album) is enough to turn a boring thing punishing, easy. If you’re a hardcore Weeknd fan there are a few tracks in here that are worth scooping out, and if you’re the kind of person who likes background music than there’s just enough decent songwriting here to make it a better backing soundtrack than most, but otherwise, skip it.