The artists featured below have little in common beyond deeply questionable, occasionally revolting public personas and a stubborn willingness to produce compelling art from these personas. Why do some succeed and others fail drastically? Partially it concerns genre — in a form based on the simulation of personal expression, character is synonymous with aesthetic quality; in a form based on the simulation of modest pop functionalism, it’s irrelevant; in a form based on the simulation of overexpression, charisma is all. I might also suggest the rather conservative idea of good old-fashioned intrinsic musical quality.
Jake Bugg: On My One (Island)
How fitting that this young, cranky English singer-songwriter infamous for dissing corporate pop stars should achieve his big breakthrough not thanks to the critics who declared him our New Dylan (just how many of those do we need?) but via “Simple as This,” his song featured on the 2014 soundtrack to The Fault In Our Stars, a truly evil film infinitely more middlebrow than anything the boys in One Direction, the admittedly bland targets of his ire in the press, have ever recorded. Dismissing this album’s excess expressionism as a clumsy response to fame would be too easy. It’s exactly as clumsy as his previous work, give or take a mixed metaphor or two.
What Bugg has on the singer-songwriter competition is retro traditionalism, a putatively perfect replica of ‘60s folk revival complete with perky acoustic plucking, brushed shufflebeats, bluesy harmonies, and related musical elements all meant to evoke a dusty, romanticized past. Wasting the lyrics on grand poetic statements, deliberately blunting his guitar strumming and adding pockets of crackly static to increase the authentic, old-timey feel and decrease any intrinsically musical appeal, he lacks any further concept or context to make his replica anything other a token of conservative good taste. When he sticks to the blues he can conjure a suitably grand, lonesome tone, and he’s neither as moony nor as preachy as faithful historical accuracy would mandate, but he suffers from preservationist’s disease, failing to realize that different music can mean different things in different contexts and that what made the music he loves great wasn’t a commitment to verities but a specific relationship with its own time. Sixties folk made one kind of statement; by recreating it fifty years later, Bugg makes another. And, even within the terms of his own form, he also suffers from an alarming case of singer-songwriter’s disease: successfully feigning the illusion of direct expression without making himself look like a particularly nice person.
Bugg’s self-titled debut included quite a few touching if awkward love songs, and 2013’s Shangri-La jolted him from his dopey stupor with a quicker beat and even some electric riffage. Here, he puts his all behind “Love, Hope and Misery,” a slow, yearning, condescending advice song to dumped girlfriends that also functions as an apology for leaving. That’s not Dylan revisited — it’s the cold, ghostly hand of Cat Stevens possessing this poor young lad, forcing him to commit unspeakable atrocities and write sequels to “Wild World”!
Panic! at the Disco: Death of a Bachelor (Decaydance/Fueled By Ramen)
The quintessential emo poseurs sure know how to put on a show. Where even their great rivals Fall Out Boy flirt with the pretense of genuine self-expression, Panic! at the Disco revel in the absurdist camp all emo implies. Three years ago I figured their last album for a triumphant fluke and expected their electropop to get a lot blander and more pro forma. Instead, here it is revitalized, outrageous as ever, with shades of swing, surf, and Queen filtered in just to prove they can.
Shamelessness has always been this band’s specialty, as they long ago crafted a distinct sound from glitzy fluorescent keyboards underpinning otherwise conventional crunchy rhythm guitar, plus punchy melodies whining their way into your head like Auto-Tuned worms through an apple, plus vocals so steeped in pathos that their overkill functions less like self-aggrandizement and more like a sly wink. At their previous best, namely 2013’s Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!, what made their intemperance tolerable, nay, thrilling, was an equal measure of control and compression, the molding of excessive elements into a sleek, aerodynamic tube inside of which said excessive elements bounced around and exploded. Here, they reverse their strategy, throwing pop discipline out the window and going overboard with the massive choruses and instrumental flourishes — swanky horns, electronic strings, keyboard frills, overdubbed operatic backup harmonies, key changes (“LA Devotee”!), flashy neon lights bathing everything in a gauzy crimson glow, all ripping holes in the plastic that used to constrain them. Their tense, sprung, sudden style of motion comes with a cheeky grin, their slinky guitar hooks with chipper cheer. Before, they were possessed by aesthetic distance; now they go for the jugular. Those who found them insufferable before will only get queasier now, and those who tolerated them before may just turn up their noses at Brendon Urie wailing the title track, clad in a metaphorical tuxedo, twirling his imaginary mustache. That leaves those of us in the cheap seats to marvel at how their fake emotion conceals real emotion. Quite a lot of real emotion, actually.
If your aestheticism forbids compulsive formalists from indulging in ridiculous kitsch for the sheer sake of genre exercise, give me the kitsch, please. Hyperactive, gimmicky, laugh-out-loud funny, this album will be remembered by pop historians as a turn toward Vegas showtune, but there’s also a lot of Anglophile in it. The title alone is so Wodehouse noir.
The 1975: I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it (Interscope)
What a weird record: eccentric English pretty boys fashion a herky-jerky electropop groove, keep the groove going for over an hour, drop in a power ballad or two just to lighten the mood, plus scattered ambient instrumentals like they think they’re David Bowie or something. As eccentric English pretty boys, they’re justified in this delusion, and somehow it all coheres anyway, held together by vexingly hummable choruses and brash sex appeal.
Beyond the ambient instrumentals, mainly included for pacing and flow (one called “The 1975,” one called “Please Be Naked,” and be grateful it’s an instrumental), the basic style here is bubblegum funk, keyed to the interaction between chunky squiggles of rhythm guitar and squiggly chunks of wah-wah synthesizer, jam-packed with goofy computer blips and shiny guitar licks and atmospheric keyboard wash yet somehow superlight on its feet. They don’t sound like much ‘80s music, but they do sound like other contemporary bands critics have claimed sound like the ‘80s, epitomizing how an allegedly dated pop genre will stay with us in perpetuity under the tag of ‘80s revival — their anthemic choruses, their glittering and/or glossy and/or tangy and/or moist array of textures, the saxophone solo on “This Must Be My Dream,” and the very idea of electrofunk-lite lead us to imagine a fictional soundtrack to the hermeneutically sealed high school paradise everyone who’s ever watched a John Hughes movie knows all too well, based not on the music from that era but on collective cultural memory. With his sweet, crafty sneercroon, frontman and chief songwriter Matty Healy clearly adores eternal adolescence even more than his rivals, declining boy-band cheer while generating that same dreamy, heartwarming erotic electricity. This thrill unifies the record, bringing together the ambient instrumentals, the schlocky power ballads, the thoughtful, mellow acoustic closer, and especially the electrofunk tracks, whose broadly familiar stylistic materials in tandem with the rest form a new kind of sound.
Excited and dazed and wry and starry-eyed all at once, the album slumps a bit in the middle but jumps back to life with “The Sound,” which would dominate the radio all summer if funk-lite still got airplay. For their next single, I hope they pick “She’s American,” in which Healy falls in love with the moment and thinks he’s in love with the girl.
Drake: Views (Young Money/Cash Money/Republic)
Silly me — when last year’s winningly direct, agile, sublime mixtape If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late came out, I went around telling my friends that Drake had finally become a real rapper, finally made a good album, etc. Turned out that was just a mixtape. On the official release he returns to sensitive confessional mode, chattering on endlessly about heartbreak and guilt and fame, yet again lying down on the therapist’s couch to expose his psyche in deeply unattractive ways.
Musically, he’s rebounded from 2013’s practically empty Nothing Was the Same: these thin, wispy keyboard blips and skittery metallic drum machines, largely courtesy of star producer 40, form a subtle, coherent whole, quietly throbbing along in the background as the vocalist sighs and whimpers in that sharp, whiny, unmistakable voice. But even so the beats are fainter and laxer than those on If You’re Reading This, and although things perk up at the end with “Pop Style” and the inescapable “Hotline Bling,” for the most part each slow, bland, half-rapped/half-sung elegy drags and drags and evaporates into a fine, chilly, barely tangible mist. Better overly delicate electronica than dry acoustic strumming, but dry acoustic strumming is indeed the relevant alternative — in an earlier era he’d certainly have picked up a guitar and performed his plaintive relationship ballads in coffeehouses, perhaps with clumsy harmonica interludes between each verse. I used to think his forlorn romantic persona, as much a function of his vaguely breathy, soulful singing voice as anything he actually says, was a manipulative ploy designed to convince women he was deep, but he expresses so many pathetic hostile sentiments here (“Last night I came to a realization/and I hope you can take it/I’m too good for you”; “Why do I want an independent woman to feel like she needs me?”) that seduction can’t be his end goal, as he resembles less a vulnerable, introverted dreamer than the eternal conceited boyfriend demanding a maternal figure for him to smother. Either way, his relentless self-examination turns clammy, needy, suffocating, especially over beats whose relaxed atmosphere could be interpreted as a lazy paucity of music.
Attempting to solidify his run as Best Rapper Alive, as Complex designated him last year, he instead falls back into his old indulgent habits. Even as narcissists go, he needs to develop basic social skills he doesn’t realize he lacks — some narcissists can be quite charismatic and fascinating, engaging as conversational partners, but Drake projects the impression he thinks he’s the most interesting person in the room. If so, leave the room.