Case Studies in Musical Hooks: Father John Misty, Galantis, Ed Sheeran, Ashik Reza

Craft in itself means nothing unless it reaches total flawlessness.

Catchy hooks, theoretically the most wonderful thing in the universe, are meaningless without a context; they must be deployed discreetly and pointedly. Magnificently hummable constructions can turn monstrous when repeated too often, repeated in the wrong places, or used as bait to trick listeners into accepting loathsome performers. The albums reviewed below function as case studies in the deployment of hooks or the lack of them.

Father John Misty: Pure Comedy (Sub Pop)

By some improbable twist of fate, Father John Misty, the folk-rocker and Fleet Foxes drummer formerly known as Josh Tillman, has become Indieland’s most prominent social critic, directing pointed metabarbs at Internet culture and its new generation while hiding behind various satirical masks to assure the worried listener. Aren’t you eager to hear his big concept album about the political situation under Trump and all his thoughts on what’s wrong with the world today?

Lyrically, Pure Comedy is among the year’s knottiest albums, deftly weaving together alternately sincere and/or obscure and/or cynical speech acts intended to convey the queasiness of, say, scrolling through Twitter.

Hipsters, outrage culture, capitalism, class struggle, political polarization, virtual reality, Plato references, global warming, who the president is — look, all the issues! Tillman writes like a man tired of the hot-take cycle, tired of the subcultural petri dishes, tired of all the useless commentary piling up endlessly and bouncing around the echo chambers, a process the dense, imaginative overflow of his lyrics deftly simulates.

He notes that his own album contributes to this process, of course; what kind of self-aware edgelord would he be if he didn’t? If you consider “Eventually the dying man takes his final breath/but first checks his news feed to see what he’s about to miss” a profound lyric, you may be just the exegete Tillman needs.

Otherwise, rest assured that musically, he’s a much nicer guy than his sarcastic invective (ironic invective is beyond him) suggests, specializing in mildly pretty melodies and midtempo acoustic ballads. Dolefully strummed guitar and vibrantly plinked piano provide a fairly empty sonic minimum that he occasionally augments with drums, strings, horns, and such. Vocally, imagine James Taylor imitating Rufus Wainwright. Perhaps he considers the familiar nature of such perfunctory folk-rock a comfort in the world described above.

The first four songs are the liveliest, after which the tempos slow down and the record gets gradually sleepier. He’s a thoughtful presence; few singer-songwriters have so examined their own performative stance. His musical aesthetic remains unexamined. .

Galantis: The Aviary (Big Beat/Atlantic)

One doesn’t expect solid albums or even singles from EDM groups these days, but the notoriously anonymous Swedish duo Galantis’s ebullient second album, The Aviary, occupies corporate dancepop’s golden mean: that perfect prototypical space where shiny hooks come together with surging beats and gleeful melodies to soar in unison, free of the individual ego and subjectivity’s icky trappings. Delight in formal mastery for its own sake is the pop producer’s great gift to civilized society.

They scored bigger hits with their debut, Pharmacy (2015), which will probably go on to sell more than The Aviary; by now the Chainsmokers have monopolized the market for this particular brand of triumphalist maximalism. Pharmacy’s giant fist-pumping climaxes, sharing space with breathily sensual admissions of vulnerability, produced a nauseating confluence, as two distinct forms of sentimentality irritated and inflamed each other.

That album boasted several keepers, but the sequel is a clear improvement: sleek, elegant, a texturally delectable technological marvel. With aerodynamic efficiency a given, they’re aiming for maximum catchiness, with sharper and fuller songcraft sparkling brightly. Previously, their hired singers would murmur a platitude or two before disappearing into the sweeping synthesizer uplift, but here they belt verses, choruses, prechoruses, and fully resolved melodies that spin and dazzle. Whooshing, glistening, buzzing, gushing keyboard hooks glide alongside chipmunky pitch-corrected vocals, bliss point after bliss point.

The effect is to formalize and desentimentalize, to code the album as dance-functional rather than dance-cathartic. The chirpy children’s rhyme “Love on Me,” the zippy, exploding loops on “Tell Me You Love Me,” and the tropical bubblegum of “Hunter” initially sound expedient before sinking permanently into your brain and skittering joyfully round and round.

They’ve specified their formal approach and become more exemplary simultaneously: a classic pop paradox. Craft in itself means nothing unless it reaches total flawlessness, its surface gleaming, with each detail perfectly calculated, each song complete on its own while simultaneously epitomizing its own genre. Then it means everything.

Ed Sheeran: Divide (Asylum/Atlantic)

English folkie troubadour and Taylor Swift pal Ed Sheeran is so nice, so unassuming, it’s odd to consider his long string of platinum singles, as if such success were unbecoming of a man so gentle. In a long tradition of newly crowned King Sensitives whose airplay is incommensurate with their ambition, Sheeran’s album fails to reconcile his mild manners with his status as a commercial fixture.

What’s so horrifying about Sheeran is how he’s genuinely talented, charming even, within the strictures of an awful genre. Moreover, he applies his talents most attentively to everything awful about the genre, magnifying their awfulness, so that all his theoretically good qualities are actually net negatives. Glistening confessional folk-pop, whose automated beats and slickly compressed keyboards barely disrupt its tortured ache, will not improve if the dopey cornball singing the songs also happens to be a master hooksmith. Such music made louder and more obtrusive illuminates the familiar contradiction between sensitivity and its use as a manipulative substitute for macho; Sheeran’s soaring hooks flex their muscles with triumphant solemnity, as if asking you to applaud their grandiloquence.

There’s one exception: “Shape of You”, a veritable electrobanger, slinking mechanically over a pitched percussive bubblesynth. Otherwise, several stylistic experiments stretching from white soul to Irish folk fail to mitigate his reliance on pealing waves of strummed acoustic guitar as a token of moral authority. He makes his big statement with “Castle on the Hill,” a tale of childhood nostalgia whose chiming U2 chords and Sheeran’s wailing, inarticulate, Bono-style falsetto rouse adequately until the quiet bridge, after which he revs back up into the cathartic chorus, bellowing “I still remember these old country lanes/when we did not KNOW THE ANSWERS,” pumping a metaphorical fist to congratulate himself on the romance of his youthful confusion and innocence.

Simultaneously gratified and burdened by commercial success while trying to hang onto his soul, Sheeran’s dilemma illustrates a pop truism: authenticity moves are crasser than actual crassness. Feeling emotions deep in your heart is hardly an aesthetic advantage if the emotions are stupid.

Ashik Reza: Pashani Priya (Protune)

Despite consensus among fans, dissenters, and the industry itself, I’m hesitant to classify Bollywood soundtrack music as kitsch — usages that in themselves sound outrageous can rapidly morph into received conventions, and anyway, the style’s garish beats and swirly strings convey athletic persistence as often as they do romantic despair. This marvelous album, by a singer whose online presence is close to nonexistent, inhabits both modes with supreme confidence.

As with much Indian pop, what startles about Ashik Reza’s album is a demented collision between abstract form and physical recording: grandiosely melancholy ballads meet the harshest textures available. Crunchy metallic percussion, pungent electric strings, squealing keyboards, fancy riffs on guitar and sitar shredding past their breaking points, and Reza’s own keening voice — all abrasive in theory, instead conjure a garish warmth suitable for a particular brand of melodic pathos designed to linger on every drop of suffering. Compressed into a tight space, the various sharp sonic elements construct a surface that’s electric rather than electronic, hooks crackling, beats rattling, although sometimes he daubs on small gurgles of Auto-Tune as a token sweetener.

Lyrics are immaterial; the shiver in his voice on “Amar Ontorai” bespeaks woundedness and resignation, and each time the jittery beats give way to the constantly returning circular hook, sweat breaks out on his forehead; he has to keep up the pace. Theoretically the textural harshness acts as a deadpan mask for the singer’s feelings, but the melodies are sufficiently grand and Reza’s vocal delivery sufficiently demonstrative that the album’s emotional weight matches its weight as a whomping blast of sound. They just coexist.

Ardent throughout, the hooky onslaught peaks in the middle with the mechanical guitar solo on “Koto Nishthur” and the fierce guitar/string dialogue on “Obhimani Priya.” Don’t call it a dialectic — call it a kickass rockesque album.

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