in Compare/Contrast

Does maturity have any place in pop music? As someone who doesn’t listen to a lot of contemporary music that would be considered “pop”, I don’t know that I’d be the one to answer that. But I want to say the answer is “yes”, and especially in regard to the current generation of pop music that not only has the potential to achieve cultural ubiquity, but critical ubiquity as well.

I’m not exactly sure when this shift happened, where pop artist started being taken seriously as just that – artists. But you could make the case that it happened around 2013, when Haim released their supremely awesome debut Days Are Gone, while that year also saw the release of Lorde’s Pure Heroine. This shift probably has something to do with us millennials having less discriminatory taste, and a general willingness to embrace any and all things, whether they’re massively popular or not. Also, I will admit that talking about “millenials” as a thing in general makes me feel about a million years old, but just stick with me here.

I’m sure you could also tie this generation’s propensity for pop music to our inability to sufficiently grow up (again, I’m generalizing here). Because as far as I can tell, millennials are much more comfortable clutching onto their own adolescence, and pop music is nothing if not the music of pure, unfiltered youth. So it would only make sense for current musical tastes to be defined by a kind of music that is all surface level pleasure, while any sort of deep-rooted pathos is avoided like the plague. Again, I’ve never felt totally in step with my generation’s tastes, so this is pure speculation, but it’s what my gut tells me.

Which brings me back to my original question – does maturity have any place in pop music? Of course, the knee-jerk answer is “no”, because how many pop artists can you think of that survived their initial bursts of success to still remain relevant, say, five years into their careers? Well, the one anomaly that first comes to mind is a band that seems to have gone through a pretty extensive re-evaluation the last decade or so – I’m of course talking about Fleetwood Mac. The fact that they put out an album as good and as contemporary-sounding as 1987’s Tango In The Night, nearly 20 years into their existence is insane, and proof that a pop group can sustain both success and quality if they have a potent enough dynamic at their heart.

As you could probably guess, I’m also talking about Fleetwood Mac because they’re the group that always gets compared to Haim, which I’m sure Haim is perfectly fine with. However, I have a hard time grappling with this comparison when there’s a song called “You Never Knew” on Haim’s latest album, Something To Tell You, that sounds like it could be a Christine McVie track straight off of Tango In The Night. But again, maybe that’s just all part of the millennial approach to music – taking the past and re-appropriating it into something new. Hell, it’s the reason something like Ready Player One exists (and will probably make lots of money). It’s just that a lot of the time you have to wonder if this pop cultural re-appropriation is a good thing.

But for now, I’m saying Haim’s more obvious influences on Something To Tell You (which also seem to include Prince and ’90s R&B) is a good thing. I’ll admit this was an album I had really high hopes for. I listened to the shit out of Days Are Gone, and the fact that it was the only piece of Haim available for my ears to feast on for the last four years raised the expectation levels quite a bit. Then when you factor in that lead single “Want You Back” was one hell of a catchy summer jam, I was legitimately pumped for this album that I was reluctant to openly admit to being pumped for (Haim’s uncoolness has always been both a blessing and a curse).

And then the album came out, and my enthusiasm became a bit muted. Reviews were fine, but not amazing, while a lot of Something To Tell You musically was more low-key than the exuberant Days Are Gone. But then I started to warm to these new songs once I asked myself “why the crap should I care about reviews for this album that was clearly not intended to pander to music critics?” Also, I came to the realization that this should sound like a more low key, mature Haim record. After all, these ladies are all hovering around 30 (103 in pop years), so really the only option was growing up while also retaining their general fun-ness.

Which is to say that I was basically expecting this to be my favorite album of the year, but have settled for it just being an album I like a lot from this year. Sure, apart from “Want You Back” and maybe “Little Of Your Love”, there isn’t really anything that approaches that first half of Days Are Gone in terms of catchiness. But one thing about Days Are Gone, is that despite the fact that the album explodes out of the speakers in its first few tracks, that back half is a little forgettable.

Something To Tell You, on the other hand, is a bit more steady in the way it distributes its hooks over songs about, I don’t know… crappy guys I guess. Haim still aren’t the most sophisticated group lyrically, and their explorations of doomed relationships aren’t breaking any new ground as far as subject matter, but that seems appropriate when these songs are so breezy and listenable. These sisters have been making music together (for as far as I know) their whole lives, and the way they slip into this more contemplative side feels seamless, even if the album’s long gestation period might say otherwise.

Another album that basically had the same 2013-2017 gestation period is Lorde’s Melodrama, which from what I can tell has become the definitive pop album of summer 2017. Meaning, in pure 2017 fashion, despite a kind of youthful exuberance, Melodrama‘s endless hooks are tempered by a kind of measured solemness. Lorde supposedly wrote the album as a kind of exercise in loneliness after a tough break-up, and I certainly see the appeal of her ability to communicate that kind of navel-gazing, but with a kind of charisma that makes such mopiness kind of irresistible.

I should mention that apart from the ubiquitous “Royals”, I never actually listened to Lorde’s Pure Heroine, despite mentioning it earlier in this piece as if I did. I’m sure a part of that would have to do with Lorde’s much talked about age at the time (she was 16 when she released her first album, and is still, you know, pretty darn young). Also, there’s something kind of robotic about Lorde’s unwavering poise, but yet also something very human about the fact that she fretted for years over making a follow-up to her debut, while it’s also hard not to get on board with a major pop star who has a secret onion ring fascination.

But really, you just can’t mess with an album like Melodrama. Everything song is super catchy without feeling pandering, with “Green Light” being the hands-down standout and the essential gateway song if you don’t typically find yourself listening to music like this (which I don’t). Songs like “Sober” and “The Louvre” are also in this same darkly danceable vein, but I find myself gravitating towards the ballads even more. “Liability” probably being favorite, as it’s a simple piano tune where Lorde confesses to being the kind of girl who’s fun to hang with but a pain to live with.

In fact, it kind of feels like the majority of the songs on Melodrama are essentially somber ballads, it’s just they have these dance-y backbeats that make them feel far less depressing than they probably should. So I’ll just say this album’s sneaky appeal lays in that dynamic, since I don’t feel compelled to write any more about this album that I’m probably not the most qualified person to write about.

Anyways, this post ended up being longer than I was expecting. But I suppose I just needed some likable albums to ramble and rave about, since I haven’t written about music in over a month thanks to our Criterion festivities. And fortunately, there are more albums I need to review, though it’s doubtful any of them have as much potential of fulfilling the long-held prophecy of the summer jam as Something To Tell You or Melodrama.

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