Album Review: Bon Iver – 22, A Million

The best song that Bon Iver/Justin Vernon is essential to isn’t called “Skinny Love” or “Perth,” it’s called “Lost in the World.” The penultimate track on Kanye West’s still kinda bonkers My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy generously samples the melody and phrasing of Bon Iver’s 2009 song “Woods,” going so far as to use the song itself as an introduction before shooting Vernon’s somber, Auto-Tuned falsetto into outer space, but with more processed choirs, massive drums and thundering piano. Reaching the end of MBDTF is kind of exhausting, but “Lost in the World” is worth the trip in significant part due to that “Woods” sample because without it, there’s nothing for the rest of the song to build and play off of.

“Lost in the World” also unintentionally shores up what bothers me about Bon Iver: Vernon is undeniably talented at folksy auteur studiocraft, but what he actually does with it is frustratingly limited. For how sculpted his music sounds, it often comes off as inert, and frankly too dull to mine for pathos. The, let’s call it “interest gap,” between “Woods” and “Lost in the World” illustrates this perfectly: “Woods” delicately stacks various AutoTuned voices repeating its lone stanza, but after 3 minutes of sad-man falsetto with nearly 2 more to go, I feel Vernon’s melancholia less and my own indifference more; I just want to hear someone’s ego obliterate and reconstruct itself over Gil Scott-Heron samples, blaring alarms and poems written to Kim Kardashian.

I feel like Vernon gets this. In case the insular song titles, wacko name, and “I’m really getting into numerology” cover art aren’t a tip-off, 22, A Million is Bon Iver’s self-conscious freak-out album. And at its best, it sounds like a deconstruction of the folk and 80s soft-rock mash-up that Bon Iver went for on Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Here, Vernon slathers the instrumentation and voices on the album in gauzy, grainy production and foregoing verse-chorus-verse structure. Instead, songs drift into each other when they don’t start or stop without warning, and different elements like guitars, saxes, or vocals add to the chaos by suddenly reappearing/disappearing. The intention is to sound dissociated and non-linear, even though loopy instrumentation, obfuscated singing, and a blaring mix like this are all stock maneuvers from the Indie Rock Kar-razy Record playbook.

But shit, sometimes the playbook works. “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” is built on a delirious drum loop, heavily Auto-Tuned vocals, too loud synths and horns, and backwards guitar like someone smashed Revolver and 808s & Heartbreak together as hard and loud as they could, and is downright exciting because of it. It shows Vernon operating as far on the musical fringe as he’ll allow himself to on a Bon Iver record, but succeeds by doing so. Opener “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” with its warm tape hiss, bright guitars, and gospel vocals on top of Vernon’s falsetto, sounds like a glitchy, pretty sunrise. Elsewhere “33 “GOD”” is 22, A Million‘s take on Bon Iver, Bon Iver‘s stately studio folk, injecting the latter’s grandeur with looseness and spontaneity that lets it soar higher. It’s delightful enough that I wish the song went longer instead of cutting off at 3:33 cuz numbers, man.

At other times, 22, A Million‘s choice to fire weird doesn’t work in its favor. Vernon’s engineer Chris Messina invented a new AutoTune harmonizer that gets used on acapella track “715 – CRΣΣKS,” which works for a panicked, broke down lyric like “Goddamn, turn around now,” but is otherwise insufferable on a track with a weak melody to begin with. “____45_____” uses Messina’s device on a saxophone that plays opposite of Vernon at his most natural, and while “Man sings opposite vocoder sax and banjo” sounds neat conceptually, it’s a lot less engaging as a listen. That “____45_____” follows the tedious “8 (Circle)” only hurts things since “8 (Circle)” represents the album at its worst: it’s a ruthlessly mid-tempo, sax-heavy, 80s cheese-rocker with layers of hazy mixing that barely goes anywhere. “8 (Circle)”‘s 5 minute run time feel like–well–8.

22, A Million‘s peaks and valleys flatten out over time. Although “SHAD Apartments” is engaging in fits and starts and “666 f” has interesting moments, they never gel as songs, and just sound half-baked. “21 MOON” is too committed at synth-inspired, soundscapey background texture for its own good, and after a tepid 2nd half, closer “0000 Million” comes off as a wash. The most damaging part of these back-half misfires is that they come on the album’s longer songs (both “SHAD Apartments” and “666 f” flail about for 4 minutes apiece, which yikes) and at a brisk 34 minutes, 22, A Million doesn’t have space to surrender this much of it to the doldrums. 

I don’t imagine Vernon meant for 22, A Million to sound contemporary in 2016, but it does. If you’ve put together a knotty, high production value, sprawling album that reads as a nonlinear monologue (or a dialogue!), 2016 is apparently your year. You could name Kanye’s The Life of Pablo and Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound here, but the albums that 22, A Million remind me most of are Frank Ocean’s Blonde and It’s the Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot by Teen Suicide.

Blonde and 22, A Million‘s main difference is genre: outside that, they’re both long-gestating, isolationist albums that emphasize studio tinkery and stubbornly/frustratingly (YMMV) refuse to give into the pop instincts they tease out. I spent a month obsessed with Blonde despite the fact that you could level most of my criticisms of 22, A Million at it–that it’s stodgy, its drumless tempo approaches glacial at times, and it’s abstract to the point of formlessness. But Blonde, for me, works because it has songs: “Nikes,” “Self-Control,” and “Nights” have presence and melodic deftness, and no matter how (warning: overused music crit vocab incoming) ethereal Blonde gets, the songwriting, composition, and mixing are all solid. 22, A Million, meanwhile, gets lost in its own inscrutability.

It’s the Big Joyous Celebration…is 26 songs of low-fi indie rock/bedroom pop that comes to just over an hour (think of it as Mellon Collie and the Infinite Soundcloud), but reminds me of 22, A Million in its vignette styling, lyrics that seem like inside jokes with themselves, and how it uses garbled production to let itself be vulnerable; something looping and frayed but hopeful like “I Don’t Think It’s Too Late” could fit on either album. But Teen Suicide is willing to go for it in a way Bon Iver won’t; Vernon, as shown on the album’s back half, never strays from his folksy, plainspoken but kind of pedestrian approach to songs. Even dressed up in production tricks, vocoders, and numerology, these songs are just too nice to be as challenging and therefore rewarding as they want to be.

For its ideas, some truly great songs, and inspired moments, I’d say that 22, A Million is Bon Iver’s best album, but that doesn’t mean it avoids its predecessors’ pitfalls. Vernon, for all of his inventiveness, insists on too many feints and too little directness to make an end-to-end engaging record. He even pulls up short on this album’s weirdness; a weirdness whose “a band, but deconstructed” approach is only truly surprising if we act like Kid A isn’t a founding document for modern indie. Which is a shame, because 22, A Million is fulfilling when it uses unconventional sounds and structure to build toward something, and far lousier far more often when it’s content to mill about and make oblique references to God or relationships or whatever. The philosophical guts of the record borderline inaccessible if the music just isn’t there. If you’re all in on Bon Iver and Vernon’s music emotionally, then it can be a sweeping, mesmerizing trip through his head and yours. To the rest of us, he just sounds lost in the woods.

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Shifting Goodness: The Hotelier, Against Me!, and What Comes Next

Most albums are centered around Something That Happened. Be it a break-up, a marriage, moving cities, or touring, it is perfectly normal for an artist to head into the studio, and put what’s been weighing on them most to music. The idea, especially for albums surrounding upheaval (break-ups, deaths, etc.), is that you use this record as a way  lay bare the Thing That Happened, process it, and boom–by the end have all the resolution of Vivien Leigh declaring “After all, tomorrow is another day” as the music swells. You then lay this out night after night in front of adoring strangers for a while, take some time off, and two to four years later, crack out another one free of whatever was troubling you last time.

I get this approach, but I find it also kind of bullshit because it denies human complexity. Upheaval isn’t just something that happens, is immediately processed, and then you’re fine. No one works like that, and you’d be foolish to suggest otherwise to someone’s face. Recovering is its own full step that takes time and includes its own non-linear emotional arc. It requires truly reflecting on and understanding where you want to go and what comes next. Two punk (ish) artists have explored this idea of What Comes Next recently: Worcester, MA’s up and comers The Hotelier and Florida’s Against Me!

The Hotelier first made waves in 2014 with their sophomore album Home, Like Noplace Is ThereHLNIT is a concise, smartly written album of cathartic punk rock, but it’s also a double-barreled blast to the chest of interpersonal and emotional crisis. There’s the rollicking tune about taking someone home after they OD. The hooky single about a friend’s suicide. The mid-album ballad on abuse. The screamo burner about gender dysphoria. All these songs rock, but the album’s intensity isn’t something that can be replicated or repeated without diminishing returns because no one’s meant to go through that much sustained anguish. “You have to find a way out” as Hotelier frontperson/principle member Christian Holden has said in a recent profile.

Released in May as Home‘s follow-up,  Goodness focuses almost exclusively on recovery following personal trauma. Recovery, as shown on Goodness, is removed and therapeutic; the names of the album’s interludes and spoken word intro refer to forested areas of New England that mean something reflective to Holden, including the Not Back to School Camp where they’re a camp counselor each summer. You hear this naturalistic isolation all over the album’s music, too: Home had a coarse production and sounded as raw as its subject matter, while Goodness includes cleaner, crisper production; and often with the guitar’s distortion pedal traded in for clean, Peter Buck-ian tones (really, the whole LP has that early-R.E.M. warmth to it). The songs on Home sounded like something you went crashing into because of the emotional overcharge; the autumnal light sound of Goodness is meant to envelope instead of overwhelm.

The songs on Goodness are enveloping as a byproduct of their sprawling nature. They’re a little slower, a little longer on average, and less pop-punk but no less effective here than on Home. “Goodness Pt. 2” is a thrilling opener with an earned full band drop after 2 minutes of building tension with Holden singing an elongated melody over crisp drums and softly dissonant guitars. Meanwhile, “Piano Player” doesn’t feel five minutes long thanks to a brisk tempo, dynamic instrumental work, and the band knowing exactly when to hit the throttle and when to ease back. And then you get “Two Deliverances,” which kicks off with the album’s prettiest guitar riff and only improves from there. Holden has that pop-punk nasally croon, but they wring more emotion out of it than on previous releases, including some falsetto to really send the yearning on “Two Deliverances” home.

Goodness‘ two songs north of 6 minutes are both are great, especially for an act who normally wrap things up in 3 or 4. “Sun” is structured around a busy, looping riff for its first half, and then fades into a jam (all those years playing live together are paying off) that leads into quiet to chants of “Sun” before exploding into a final, raspy refrain. It’s less orderly than the band’s previous long songs, but the risk and build-up pay off. Meanwhile, closer “End of Reel” is a Hotelier anthem in the vein of “An Introduction to the Album” and “Dendron” to its core, that starts small and builds and builds until the exact moment it doesn’t.

Another aspect of Goodness and how it believes in healing is how it wants to heal and exist on its own terms. It’s not a difficult album in the vein of, say, Blonde where it subverts expectations, but in it how it makes some plain damn weird (but completely logical) artistic choices. It’s an album that’s not afraid to be itself, in other words. On one hand, you’ve got stuff that scans as self-indulgent–like the spoken word introduction and acoustic, sound collage-y interludes–which maybe insist upon themselves, but make sense as searching for inner peace. And then, you’ve got the material that makes you feel blisteringly self-conscious about championing this record, like the high-lariously NSFW cover art, and how extroverted “Soft Animal” is about its plea for–well–goodness. There aren’t half-measures on something like the overearnest gloriousness of a chorus going “MAKE ME FEEL ALIVE/MAKE ME BELIEVE THAT ALL MY SELVES ALIGN.”  Goodness is like that with its other choices; either you entertain the argument that AARPsters going full-frontal is beautiful, or you just closed out a tab as fast as possible.

But I get it. I get why Goodness is so committed to its aspirations. The common complaint is that the album isn’t as immediate or dark/cathartic as its predecessor; that The Hotelier have lost something intimate by going light instead. I see this complaint, but it’s not accurate. I say that Goodness is so committed to its aspiration toward goodness and recovery because that hope is all it has left, and it knows that without that hope, it would die. That, to me, is darker than Home. And this is supported entirely by the record itself: those studio glitches that creep up during otherwise peaceful moments (“You in This Light” skipping at its end, the bursts of noise in “Settle the Scar,” and the background hiss on “Goodness, Pt. 2”) sound like a past anguish trying to claw to the surface. The chorus on “Piano Player” offers the most compelling and harrowing version of this: for the first one and a half iterations, Holden sings the word “Sustain” like a calming, controlled mantra. On the second time around, they pivot from that peaceful, clear tone to a full-throated scream barely contained in background, and you can hear their voice either on the edge of breaking through to the front or breaking down completely into despair. In that white-knuckled moment, “Sustain” isn’t an ideal, it is optimism or death.

Even after 47 minutes, Goodness knows that the search for happiness and the process of recovery may never be over. The album closes with perhaps its most musically straight ahead song, “End of Reel.” The formal power balladry of the song ends four-fifths of the way through for one last rising rock band jam. Over about a minute, the guitars lock into place, the bass weaves between them, the cymbal crashes mount, and as the whole thing damn near actualizes into an Arcade Fire-sized wave of catharsis, everything dies out, except random snare hits. As soon as you’re aware of your own happiness, it disappears, and you can’t catch it right back. But, you can look for it, and that’s all Goodness wants.

“What comes next?” is an immediate concern for Florida punks Against Me! and their new album Shape Shift With Me. 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, written while frontwoman Laura Jane Grace came out as trans and transitioned to life as a woman, was a watershed moment for the band that revitalized their career. It was also my favorite album of 2014. But it left almost too neat a bow on Grace and her band’s narrative: she was out, proud, and unilaterally supported while her band made the best record of its career. Hell, Transgender Dysphoria Blues even ended its fraught and traumatized run time with Grace at her most resolutely defiant on “Black Me Out;” things couldn’t have ended neater.

But, while Grace’s public and professional lives aligned, she was fighting to keep herself together. As detailed in a recent Rolling Stone profile, Grace’s transition effectively blew up her personal life by putting a significant strain on her relationship with her father, on her mental state, and eventually ruining her marriage. The upheaval for Grace isn’t over, and may never be.

Shape Shift With Me handles what comes next by refusing to take any of its shit, which keeps with Against Me!’s general M.O. For however frayed Grace’s personal life is, at least she can take solace that her band’s never sounded better: The Offspring veteran Atom Willard returns on drums, longtime member James Bowman handles guitar leads, and hyperactive bassist Inge Johansson joined following the Transgender Dysphoria Blues tour. The chemistry on last year’s live record is present here; from brawny shout-along opener “Provision L-3″to the free-wheeling punk rock makeout sesh “Rebecca” to “Boyfriend”‘s heavy stomp, Shape Shift With Me has some of Against Me!’s most muscular but surprisingly catchy and fun music.

That’s the other thing about Shape Shift With Me–it’s the first Against Me! record that could be described as fun. Part of the reason why is this band’s blend of folk, punk, and Springsteen-ian stadium rock has always had some bounce and melody to it, but SSWM is the first album where they lean into their pop-rock tendencies. The single biggest factor in the album’s brightness is the production, though; not only are the guitars big, the drums punchy, and Grace’s vocals pushed to the front, they’re polished without being overproduced (see: Crosses, White). That sheen is what makes “Crash,” whose central riff threatens to burst into “Just What I Needed” so damn enjoyable, and what closing track “All This (And More)” bittersweet, since Grace has room to sound dejected without being buried by the music. Sonically, this is the new wave record that every band who toured Warped between ’04 and ’08 eventually does.

Shape Shift With Me‘s musical brightness matches its lyrical determination to have shit work, but it’s not as lighthearted and carefree as it wants to be. For one thing, lighthearted albums don’t have kickass songs like “Delicate, Petite, & Other Things I’ll Never Be,” where gender dysphoria is set to a punk rockified take on “Billie Jean,” or Flogging Molly-esque fuck-offs like “Haunting Haunted Haunts.” But even the album’s “just wanna have fun” moments come with desperation: “Rebecca” isn’t so caught up in its own hot blood that it doesn’t implore its subject “Let’s not fall in love,” lest anything hurtful happen, and the positivity of “12:03” is tempered with the anxiety of hearing back from someone and getting things to go right. And, as “All This (And More)” admits with its closing line, everything over the last 36 minutes has been to forget you.

I guess you could argue that Shape Shift With Me is a break-up record, but that seems too narrow. More broadly–and accurately–it describes the fallout and next steps in Grace’s life following her transition. There’s no longer one big change (i.e. “My name is Laura Jane Grace”), but a bunch of smaller changes, y’know, shifts in her current life. Whereas Goodness centers on internal healing from previous trauma, Shape Shift With Me believes its core self will be enough if the world would accept it. But both truly, firmly believe that good things will not only come, but they have to. You just have to survive first.

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Radio Rant: Billboard’s Songs of the Summer 2016

Of all of Billboard’s silly charts, none draws me year after year like the Songs of the Summer. For one, it’s a good tip-off to how the year-end is going to look because whoever runs the summer will place generously there, but mostly I enjoy it because its only purpose the futile exercise of quantifying hype. Most of Billboard’s other charts are rooted (however dubiously) in the hard numbers of sales, streams, and airplay. The Songs of the Summer chart is made of, “the most popular titles based on cumulative performance on the weekly Billboard Hot 100 chart from Memorial Day through Labor Day,” which (I think) means that it takes however the songs are doing on the Hot 100 and rejiggers them into a new list…somehow. Cumulatively? Who knows! It gets even kookier because Billboard doesn’t do one final list for the entire summer anymore and instead issues the chart week by week, meaning wherever you rank in mid-September is supposed to reflect the summer, leading to wonky claims like “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” magically coming in at the 10th song of the season despite never being that popular. Thank goodness for cumulative ranking!

So instead, I made my own list with Billboard’s data. Using their 20 spot Summer Song  weekly chart, I gave the number one song 20 points, the number two song 19 points and so on each week (if a song didn’t chart for a week, it got 0 points), and then averaged each song’s points out for what’s basically a pop music DVOA. The top ten highest point-earners are below. And, if you’re so inclined, you can click here for the breakdown.

The last thing I’ll say is that this year solid enough, but it was pretty homogeneous. Most everything that ranked high had a sultry, electronic, dancehall tinge to it. In other words, it all sounded like Rihanna. So then, part of today is going to be a game called “Sounds Like Rihanna,” where we’ll appraise each song on how much it does or doesn’t evoke the ANTI singer. Let’s begin.

10. Kent Jones – “Don’t Mind”Hola como esta Kent Jones? Long time, no see. I still maintain that “Don’t Mind” is a mindless song, but at least the chorus is mindless fun instead of mindless dumb like the verse, and that’s enough to make it harmless coming in at number 10. I don’t know, this is still low quality radio filler, so there’s not much to say. The Pitbull remix fits “Don’t Mind” like a glove, though (this is a compliment).

Sounds Like Rihanna: Very low. It’s just so damn perky that I think she’s sneer at it over her sunglasses.

9. Mike Posner – “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” (Seeb Remix)
In which Mike Posner capitalizes on what the rest of us have known since 2010: fuckin’ nobody wants to be Mike Posner. There’s potential for a song like “ITaPiI” that so nakedly grips with being a wash-up, but Poser’s too self-pitying to really make it work outside a line or two. The Seeb remix is uninspired sub-DJ Snake EDM pop, and jamming in the club to “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” is “getting drunk to ‘Swimming Pools’” level Missing The Point.

Sounds Like Rihanna: Musically, not really, but “I took a pill in Ibiza” is definitely a thing she’s done.

8. Sia ft. Sean Paul – “Cheap Thrills”
“Cheap Thrills” landed on my personal Songs of the Summer list, so it’s gold to me. It’s just a fun listen because Sia, Sean Paul, and Greg Kurstin know their way around mercenary, breezy pop music like few others do. And, speaking as part of a friend group where invariably one of us checks their mobile banking app on the sly before we all go out, I can appreciate a song about partying on the cheap. “Cheap Thrills” is just an honest good time, and the fact that one of our summer hits is by a pair of 40-somethings only made the happy hour booze that much sweeter.

Sounds Like Rihanna: “Cheap Thrills” was literally written for Riri, if that answers it.

7. Rihanna – “Needed Me”
When ANTI came out in January, I wanted “Needed Me” to be a hit, but I never thought it would actually happen. It’s not structured like a pop song. It neither slaps nor bangs. It has a surprisingly raw Rihanna. It has DJ Mustard’s iciest beat made of stretched and twisted synth buzz and reverby drums. None of these are knocks–in fact, I’d call “Needed Me” one of Rihanna’s best songs–but it doesnt’ scream “radio single,” even with an eye-catchy video. Still, though, it happened. What I like about “Needed Me” in pop context is that it’s basically just Rihanna on this thing: it’s not weighted down by a guest verse, it’s not anchored by a big name producer doing his trademark work; it’s just her front and center. Also, Rihanna curving a tuxedoed Drake in front of millions has to be a “Fuck your white horse and a carriage” moment.

Sounds Like Rihanna: It’s not just Rihanna, it’s Peak “Maneater DGAF” Rihanna.

6. Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla $ign – “Work From Home”
Fifth Harmony have the same problem that Ariana Grande had last album cycle: here’s a pop act with decent material, but lacks that one intangible to send it home. And “Work From Home” is fine, really. End of the day, I think I slightly prefer the brassy attitude of “Worth It,” but I can respect the way “Work From Home” taps current trends and churns out a good application of them. If you like songs on the radio, you’ll probably like this one, but you probably won’t love it. There also, y’know, that other song.

Sounds Like Rihanna: “Work From Home” is the The Amazing Spider-Man to “Work”‘s Spiderman.

5. Calvin Harris ft. Rihanna – “This Is What You Came For”
The easy bag on “This Is What You Came For” is that the song’s behind the scenes drama between producer Calvin Harris and pseudonymous writer/Harris’ now-ex Taylor Swift is more interesting than the song itself. I’m not gonna fight that exactly, however, “This Is What You Came For” is a solid dance track. It features some relatively restrained and smooth Calvin Harris production (check the way that chorus synth/handclap combo just bounces and the post-chorus glides), and even if she’s doing a light Taylor Swift impression, I’d rather hear Rihanna on this than T.Swift herself. And c’mon, was it really surprising that Swift wrote this song? Doesn’t “Lightning strikes every time she moves” scream “Taylor Swift lyric” to anyone else?

Sounds Like Rihanna: If Rihanna hadn’t gone artistic for ANTI, its first single would have sounded like “This Is What You Came For.”

4. The Chainsmokers ft. Daya – “Don’t Let Me Down”
This is still a song I will never give a shit about, and Daya seems poised to have a legit career, but the most exciting thing that’s happened between now and the last time I looked at this C-minus of a hit is The Chainsmokers’ bro-tastically unself-aware Billboard profile. In the profile, the guys talk about: being inspired by characters in Entourage, starting an investment club in high school, pin that awful VMAs performance on Halsey, a “tip-to-tip” measurement of their combined dicks, describe their first meeting as “a man date,” mention how “even before success, pussy was number one,” and I’m only lying about one of those. Enjoy it while it lasts, broskis, but remember that Mike Posner was once you. And some day, you’ll be him.

Sounds Like Rihanna: Daya continues the chart’s “Rihanna imitation, Actual Rihanna, Rihanna imitation, Actual Rihanna, Rihanna imitation” pattern.

3. Desiigner – “Panda”
“Panda” is still too long by a stretch, but not since seeing DJ Esco and Metro Boomin weave through “Where Ya At” has my opinion of a song been so buoyed by seeing people dance to it. You couldn’t choreograph that kind of shit to “Don’t Let Me Down.”

Sounds Like Rihanna: “Panda” and Rihanna both appear like, 40 seconds apart on The Life of Pablo, but that’s about it.

2. Justin Timberlake – “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”
I’m of two minds with “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” On one hand, this is some aggressively middle of the road, people pleasing, disco-pop by numbers, craven capitalist (Don’t forget to see Trolls in theaters!) bullshit. “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” is like Justin Timberlake’s Michael Jackson self-insert fanfic last year without Michael’s take there to shine things up. On the other hand, I fucking loved “Love Never Felt So Good,” and if anyone’s going to dedicate themselves to making this fizzy pop song work, it’s JT. And most of my knocks against “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” seem like they’re by design: this is a song that’s supposed to color inside the lines and please people. It’s the all-ages banger for the summer. I don’t have to like it, but for weddings? It’s time to dance, dance, dance.

Sounds Like Rihanna: Not at all, to the point that it’s sort of a defining feature. “Can’t Stop the Feeling” is trend-averse, silent majority kind of pop.

1. Drake ft. Wizkid & Kyla – “One Dance”
A large part of why the Songs of the Summer chart feels so doofy and unnecessary is that the actual song of the summer is always a forgone conclusion. We’ve been so thoroughly shellacked by the season’s biggest song by mid-September that our reaction to it has calcified into grudging indifference, unbridled joy, or deep, unending rage. “One Dance” falls squarely in the “grudging indifference” category: it’s passable, maybe even good if you squint at it, but completely underwhelming, no matter the context. It’s hard to pin down exactly how “One Dance” did so well; there was no unstoppable video, it’s not super quotable or joke worthy, and it’s barely a song. Maybe Drake’s just too big to friggin fail at this point. With “Controlla” and “Too Good” bubbling under in recent months, we shall see. If those songs really take off, he can rule the rest of the year. Otherwise, this is just that summertime sadness.

Sounds Like Rihanna: Sort of? I feel like she probably laughed at “One Dance” the first time she heard it.

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Radio Rant: Lady Gaga – Perfect Illusion

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. No quip today, just appreciate that cover art.


It’s here. All of Lady Gaga’s goodwill endeavors since ARTPOP stalled in 2013–recording and touring trad pop standards with Tony Bennett, the Sound of Music medley, singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, acting gigs, recording a critically acclaimed, socially conscious ballad–every part of the Gaga’s Still Got It Campaign, has been building toward this; her first reentry into the pop game she once ruled and made in her own, weird image. Gaga’s been dropping hints and updates from the studio leading up to “Perfect Illusion,” and with the fall pop release schedule essentially open to whoever has the first great track, there’s no better time than now for her to launch her comeback. So let’s see how this goes.

Before we get started, go ahead and listen to the track. Seriously, go ahead. The single art up there links to the song. I can wait.

Okay, so that first listen was pretty underwhelming. No matter where you eventually land on “Perfect Illusion,” the consensus is that it doesn’t wow on the first spin, that you have to give it time. It reminds me of how we perceived “Work”, where a key part of understanding the song was realizing it wasn’t designed to hit you in the same way as Rihanna’s previous work. But that was pretty easy to do with “Work” once you considered that “Rude Boy,” “You Da One,” and “What’s My Name?” all exist. But “Perfect Illusion” doesn’t have an easy comparison point in Gaga’s discography. For those first few seconds filled with alarm sirens and sun-fried hard rock guitar, you think the track’s going to be a campy Born This Way throwback rocker, but the major features here are four to the floor drums and vamping keyboards. And while those aren’t new weapons in the Gaga arsenal, the restraint is.

The biggest difference between “Perfect Illusion” and the rest of Lady Gaga’s work is in what the production is trying to do. From “Just Dance” all the way up to “G.U.Y.” her beats have been these stadium sized club jams with massive, digitized drum tracks and blown out synths that tried and (mostly at first and less so over time) succeeded at invoking a listener response through sheer size and rush. The thrill wore off on ARTPOP because Gaga’s songcraft abilities seemed to more or less leave her; where her songs had always been big, they always knew how to best deploy their size to sweep you off your feet, even when they went from “huge” to “mondo freaking huge” (I’m think of “The Edge of Glory” in particular here). Her production specialty was “barnburner.”

Meanwhile, “Perfect Illusion” has a beat that’s honest to God nuanced. It’s not one bent on world domination, but a track that includes subtle shifts and extra flourishes, like the twinkling synth that fades in on the chorus. Lady Gaga coproduced and cowrote “Perfect Illusion” with Mark Ronson and Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker (BloodPop coproduced as well), and it sounds like a Gaga/Ronson/Tame collaboration instrumentally. You’ve got Gaga’s dance pop base with Ronson style tastefulness and synth and drum textures straight out of “Let It Happen.” It’s maybe a little too compact at a 3 minute run time for how much it wants to do, and the drum sound is weirdly flunky, but that campiest of camp key change is a “Holy shit” moment musically. There’s an HQ version of just the beat that’s a must-listen.

Which is why it’s rough to pair “Perfect Illusion”‘s tailored beat with what has to be Gaga’s capital R Rawest vocal take ever. One of the Gaga’s Still Got It campaign through lines was a call for authenticity and vocal talent (based on the preliminary look for this new record and the emphasis on ~realness~ this album could be “Gaga Goes Rockist” move), and accordingly, she consciously sings the shit out of “Perfect Illusion.” On the hook–which, by the way, 77% of this song is its hook on repeat–she belts “IT WASN’T LAAAV, IT WASN’T LAAAAV, IT WAS A PERFECT ILLUSION” complete with near voice breaks and sounding like she’s at the top of her range. It wows at that first chorus thirty seconds in, but feels less earned as the song goes because there’s never any tension or build up to a release. Even after the key change, which is a genuinely cool moment, my enthusiasm dissipates because “Perfect Illusion” doesn’t go anywhere with the momentum.

Your mileage may vary as to if you find “Perfect Illusion” to be a slowburner or a fizzle. The most popular argument espoused on YouTube and Twitter (sidenote: remember Gaga’s Little Monsters? They’re back!) is that it takes a few listens for “Perfect Illusion” to take off, but so far I’m not hearing it; a dozen plays in, and this still just sounds like a really cool demo. Gaga going this hard over this production does neither any favors since she sounds too forced and the beat sounds too plodding. I’m not saying it’s bad, but if she pulled back a little or if the beat leaned into those changes and matched her, this would be an unqualified success instead of a tepid one. As is, this is a fine song with the projections of a great song. The illusions of one, if you would.

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Ranting About Music’s Top Songs of the Summer (2016)

It’s the last day of August, Labor Day’s coming up, and there were two chillyish mornings last week leading to everyone in my social media feeds to talk about how ready for fall they are; it’s the end of the summer. As per usual, the rundown on Billboard’s songs of the summer will be up after Labor Day when the summer chart closes, but I wanted to do something different first. Here are the songs that I got the most mileage out of this summer, because you only get so much out of the radio, and I wanted to touch on some songs that wouldn’t get a spotlight otherwise (and some that will). So here are my songs of the summer in alphabetical order.

Beyonce – “Sorry”
Lemonade‘s been out since late April, which in 2016 music release time means it’s practically ready for a reissue, and while 4 or 5 different tracks could have been on this list, it was always going to come down to “Sorry.” This electropop number with the late-night synths, crisp snares, and dreamy atmosphere is not only catchy and melodic, but it best distills Lemonade‘s themes: don’t let anyone fuck you out of your grind, stay defiant, and do right by yourself at any cost. If you want to celebrate it in context, “Sorry” also had Lemonade‘s second most pronounced video and its most headline-baiting lyric, but really, I think what sells it is the emotional range. It opens with that spent but unwavering anger, but gradually gives way to sadness–listen to the slight voice quiver on “I ain’t thinkin’ ’bout you” at 1:54–and eventually loss during its free-floating outro. All that pathos wrapped up in one of the year’s best beats; nothing to be sorry about here.

Chance the Rapper – “Same Drugs”
The degree to which Chance’s Coloring Book has been pegged as “the happy album” strikes me as true if reductive. Sure, most of the mixtape is bathed in sunlight, but it also has stuff like the sad gospel hymn “Same Drugs.” “Same Drugs,” which Chance has gone on record saying isn’t about actual drugs, is a heartbreaker to hear in summer; summers are supposed to be all about hanging out with your friends and being together, and here’s this somber but melodically deft song about how you and someone you used to relate to have grown up and apart. That’s a hard one to deal with at any time of the year, but in summer, when you’re apt to see a younger you and your friends all tanned up looking back at you thanks to Facebook’s On This Day? It fucking sucks. Of course, all this sadness is tempered by some truly soothing piano and female backing vocals, plus strings and a guitar solo of all things, giving “Same Drugs” the comforting warm of an old summer.

DJ Khaled ft. Big Sean and Drake – “Holy Key”
In a space similar to this one last year, I wrote about Kendrick Lamar’s pathological inability to mail it in, and nowhere is that compulsion nearly as on display as it is on Khaled’s “Holy Key.” The song’s pretty great before Kendrick shows up, thanks to a surprisingly game Big Sean, that huge arena-rap beat, and Betty Wright’s take’em-to-church hook, and for a while it looks like Kendrick’s going to keep everything where it’s at, energy-wise. But no, once he locks into the wordiest, most technical part of his verse, he pivots into his upper register and goes the fuck off, chaining together multisyllabic phrases and rhyming voice cracks with each other with the dexterity of a goddamn Simone Biles floor routine. And all this is, again, on a DJ Khaled track: a one-off where just showing up and not bludgeoning Big Sean in the head with a dictionary (again) is 98% of the job. But Kendrick won’t do 98% percent of a job when he sees a whole other 52% just sitting on the table. It doesn’t get more major key than that.

Drake – “Feel No Ways”
How bad does Drake have to feel listening to the like, three or four flatout wonderful albums that have come out in the last few months knowing his entry is the bloated and tedious VIEWS? My guess is “kind of bad,” because while he’s having the time of his life on the charts, VIEWS neatly snapped his critical hot streak, and even most fans concede that the album is “okay” at best. It’s not the coronation he had in mind, I’m sure. But VIEWS does have a couple of winners on it, like “Feel No Ways.” Musically, “Feel No Ways” is a sleeker, less chart-baiting “Hold On, We’re Going Home” with its watery keys, clicking beat, and some familiar vocal melodic phrasing, but stands on its own thanks to enough beat variation and the last minute of breakdown. Despite a few lyrical missteps (“Who is it that’s got you all gassed up?” really, Aubz?), the hook and production are all around solid here, and the tempo’s a good fit for Drake. I don’t even hold it against “Feel No Ways” that it’s almost a convincing argument to give VIEWS another try.

Ariana Grande – “Into You”
My pick for the “Summer Pop Banger: Contrarian Edition” category. It might scan as odd to call the sitting 13th biggest song in the country underrated, but in the case of “Into You,” it totally is. The song reminds me most of mid-period, Blackout and Circus Britney, when she had these industry-insider, weapons grade, icy club beats to work with that bordered undeniable. The difference is that Grande can sing the shit out of this stuff, and “Into You” is constructed (in part by chief Britney architect Max Martin, no less) so that Grande gets to deliver on that chorus in as big a way as possible. Grande brings her A game here, standing head and shoulders above a track that could easily swallow an artist whole. She’s working in the same field as “Love Me Harder” but sounds less–well–childlike here, a problem that was exaggerated her last album cycle, but noticeable all the same. Really, “Into You” stalling out is emblematic of Dangerous Woman as a whole: it’s a good pop album, but Grande can’t seem to find her footing. Still, this is a keeper, and probably your friend who wouldn’t shut up about Carly Rae Jepsen last year’s favorite pop single.

PUP – “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will”
One of my favorite moments in this year’s music takes place a minute and a half into pop-punker “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” when everything but an overdriven guitar riff drops out, and the entirety of PUP screams in raspy unison “WHY CAN’T WE JUST GET ALONG?!” That moment takes the song from just a needling travelogue from frontman Stefan Babcock (that name, though) to a full band civil war. On the surface, “ITTDK,IW” aims to de-romantcize life on the road, but underneath that, this is a song about how those who know each other best know best how to piss each other off; it’s for the times when someone else’s quirks can’t help but bug the shit out of you, you know your schtick is getting thin with them, and look, dammit, we’re all in this so just deal with it. And while that sentiment sounds overwrought, it’s actually pretty funny as a song. Look, it’s 2016: tensions between varying factions of Americans are running high, we’ve suffered through a year of Trump’s bullshit, and the election from hell still has two more months. Maybe a band of Canadians screaming “WHY CAN’T EVERYBODY JUST CHILL?!” is what we need right now.

Rihanna – “Same Ol Mistakes”
For me, ANTI‘s been in rotation since its January release, with “Same Ol Mistakes” picking up as we entered the warm season, which is weird because I was never receptive to Tame Impala’s original. Listening to the pair back to back, I think Rihanna’s take works because Kevin Parker just doesn’t have the voice to capitalize on a pop hook while Rihanna does them so well that “Imitate Rihanna” is a pathway to radio success. In Rihanna’s hands, “Same Ol Mistakes” goes from being a sleepy album closer to a killer late summer night cut for when the air is a shimmering as these synths. She just knows how to find the fun and the sway this sort-of-stoned psych-pop. I might even come around on the original through a combination of her and Donald Glover.

Sia ft. Sean Paul – “Cheap Thrills”
My pick for the “Pop Hit Summer Banger: Non-Contrarian Edition” category. I understand why Rihanna passed on this one, but it’s still a good summer jam with its dancehall thump and groove and I’m glad to see that Sia notched took it to number one. I honestly just appreciate Sia’s pop career because it’s like she’s daring it to succeed. Like, the music’s market friendly, but she’s so willfully obtuse: she refuses to let her face be seen in public appearances or be at the forefront of her performances/music videos, and we’ve rewarded her with multiple top ten hits. Take the Sean Paul feature on “Cheap Thrills” for example: it makes sense–he’s a veteran performer and adds some Caribbean authenticity–but the inclusion of a dude who’s been out of the charts for the better part of a decade feels again like daring the song to take off in spite of itself. Yet, because of a smooth beat and her own do or die vocals, here’s Sia with a number one song. Nothing cheap about that.

Teen Suicide – “Falling Out of Love With Me”
This lo-fi indie popper and the album it’s from have quietly flown under the radar for most of the year, but I can’t get enough of both. Teen Suicide’s farewell album (well, to the moniker) It’s the Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot is a hodgepodge of styles, but it carves a pretty generous lane for poppy guitar rock with interplay between reverb and delay drenched vocals and peppy, clicky drums, something the band does quite well. “Falling Out of Love With Me” in particular could almost pass for a take on The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” except its reminiscence is anchored in “I can’t stop you falling out of love with me” instead of “You’re just like a dream.” The interplay between the different guitar parts here and aloof vocal take put the dream in dream-pop, and like the end of a relationship, “Falling Out of Love With Me” sounds like it could drift away at any second. Not that you’d want it to.

What were some of your songs of the summer? Let me know below!

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Radio Rant: The Chainsmokers – “Don’t Let Me Down” ft. Daya AND “Closer” ft. Halsey

Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants, where we’re pulling double duty today.


I know there’s an ocean-sized release out there right this second, but let’s get back to the pop charts one last time before the summer’s over. Today, we’re looking at DJ duo The Chainsmokers, who–well–are here to stay. They have, of course, been in mainstream for the last twoish years; breakout it’s-a-joke-song-but-not-really “#selfie” blew up in 2014, and they went legit with last year’s “Roses.” But it’s the simultaneous charting of “Closer” with Halsey at number 6 1 and the Daya-featuring “Don’t Let Me Down” at 8 that cements The Chainsmokers as, to me, the best example of what Chris DeVille at Stereogum calls the rise of the producer as a lead artist. DeVille’s argument is that, as a byproduct of the producer-worshiping EDM scene infiltrating and influencing pop, producers are more visible both behind the scenes and on the charts, and now guys like Calvin Harris and Zedd are more prominent in a post-“We Found Love” world. I say this is truest of The Chainsmokers because they’ve notched hits with bit players and unknowns, whereas Calvin Harris is only as successful chartwise as his collaborators.

Which hey, good for them, but it’s trouble for me because I just cannot find it in me give a shit about The Chainsmokers. And I’ve tried, too! I listened to “Roses” when it and its “The Chainsmokers aren’t hacks, we swear” narrative blew up last year, and it left me cold. I kept trying “Don’t Let Me Down” and bailing, whereas I could muster up something to say about a song as dull as “One Dance.” I don’t even really think The Chainsmokers are bad, it’s just that something about them turns me into Mean Old Mr. Rant. Their take on trendy EDM is smaller and less world-conquering than the likes of Zedd and company, but also completely fine. It just goes in one ear, rattles around okay, and out the other.

Thus brings us to “Don’t Let Me Down.” “Don’t Let Me Down” is probably going to be the fifth or sixth biggest song this summer, which feels about right in a grudgingly acceptable way; this is The Chainsmokers operating in “you wanted a hit?” mode. It starts with some a-okay guitar and drum pads under Daya’s vocals, but let’s be real, paying attention to this song’s verses is like pretending you’re invested in the first 20 minutes of a disaster movie: you’re just here to see shit blow up. The song throws some watery synths in during the build-up, adds in some drums/claps straight outta “Black Widow” to ratchet up the drama, and Daya injects as much meaning as she can into “Don’t let me, don’t let me down” and “I need you, I need you, I need you right now.” The drop comes and throws everything vaguely into trap territory with big bass, snares, “hey”s, and more handclaps as Daya repeats the song’s name a bunch. It’s smooth, it’s tolerable, it’s the signal for me to stop dancing and get a new drink when it comes on at the club.

Jokes aside, “Don’t Let Me Down” does a few things well. The drop is catchy enough, and Daya brings the drama and vocal power on the song’s second half when she gets to let loose, and nearly overpowers these place-holder lyrics (theory: “Don’t Let Me Down”‘s lyrics function only exist as scene dressing to heighten the dramatic build-up. Otherwise they pack as much meaning as singing about like, Olympic medal counts). It’s not a bad song, but “Don’t Let Me Down” feels like empty calories without the sugar overload. It’s been a totally acceptable song to hear in shopping malls, sporting events, clubs, and ads, but if I never hear it again after October, I’m absolutely fine with that. Mostly, “Don’t Let Me Down” makes me miss “Lean On.”

So there, I thought hard enough about a Chainsmokers song to replace my innate apathy with informed apathy. I just wish my feelings on “Closer” were that straight forward.

Which, “Closer.” Hooooo boy.

I can’t back out of this one now. Not only did I already write it into the title of this blog, but it just become Chainsmokers’ and Halsey’s first number one hit, so welcome to legitimacy, baby. And while ultimately “Closer” leaves me just as mixed as “Don’t Let Me Down,” it takes a far more frustrating route to get there because I almost, almost like it.

Let’s step back for a second. Now that I’ve invested some time and energy into The Chainsmokers, I’ve pinned down why they rub me the wrong way: their music is weirdly, stridently ungroovy. There’s no rhythmic through line, no unerring beat to come back to and lose yourself in. You can’t dance to this shit. Lest I sound like every anti-EDM crank ever, let me state that this is a Chainsmokers’ problem and not an EDM one: “Sweet Nothing” is still a killer dancefloor cut, and I’ve wrung more mileage out of Bieber’s sad-bro EDM tracks than I care to admit. Zedd’s “Stay the Night” is probably a D-grade song, but at least you can move to it. You can’t say that of Chainsmokers’ tunes outside the drops, the only developed parts of their songs (such to the point that I almost swear they write the drops first and work backwards from there).

All this comes to the forefront of “Closer” because, even as one of their best beats and one that’s in my lane, it still feels slight. It’s the darker, piano-y electronic ballad to “Don’t Let Me Down”‘s bright summer banger that features Halsey, the aspiring prom queen of darkish, electronicy pop ballads. And unlike “Don’t Let Me Down,” the hook at the drop absolutely works; those wistful, rotating synths interlock over a beat that’s easy to get lost in. The whole thing captures that shared, swept-up infatuation. To be fair, I consider Kanye’s “Paranoid” and “Sober” by Childish Gambino criminally underrated, so warbling robo-keyboards like this are just dog whistles for me, but still “Closer” is as strong a hook as any Chainsmokers have done. The production on the verses and the sung chorus is fine–there’s that word describing these guys again–but that hook is a make.

Then there’s the rest of this damn song.

“Don’t Let Me Down” might have had lyrics that were dashed off on the back of a takeout receipt en route to the studio that day, but “Closer” is so obnoxious that I miss that banality. The lyrics of “Closer” are about as vapid as “#selfie” but played entirely straight as a love story between two kids so self-absorbed that, y’know, maybe we have all of those “millennials are ruining _____” thinkpieces coming. It’s a love duet between two people to themselves. To wit:

“Hey, I was doing just fine before I met you/I drink too much and that’s an issue but I’m OK” Is that a pick-up line or?

“You tell your friends it was nice to meet them/But I hope I never see them again” This line, and really, anything Chainsmoker Andrew Taggert sings in “Closer,” is so vaguely affluent and douchey that it technically counts as a PostGradProblems column.

“So baby pull me closer in the backseat of your Rover/That I know you can’t afford” That’s a moment killer, right? Like, you and this person you’ve had eyes on for years are touching mouths and shit, then one or both of you reflects on how this car’s an active credit bomb, and the magic’s over.

“Bite that tattoo on your shoulder” I’d actually be kinda mad if someone bit my tattoo. Tattoos cost more than you do.

“Pull the sheets right off the corner of that mattress that you stole/From your roommate back in Boulder/We ain’t never growing older” What kind of asshole steals a mattress?

“Stay, play that blink-182 song/That we beat to death in Tucson, OK” I’m glad this song brings up blink-182 because they’re a perfect comparison for why “Closer” can take all the shit other people bought it and go die. Blink’s brat anthem “What’s My Age Again?” similarly prides itself on blowing people off; “I never wanna act my age” isn’t too far from “We ain’t ever getting older.But “What’s My Age Again?” knows this schtick has consequences and may even be pathological as Hoppus wonders aloud “What the hell is wrong with me?” in a moment of self-awareness that “Closer” either cannot or will not give. You’re not quirky or carefree, you’re just assholes.

That’s a lot to pile on a track written by a pair of bro-y DJs whose lyrical prowess is usually remedial at best, but they tried something here and it tanked. Alex Pall, the Chainsmoker who doesn’t sing on “Closer,” has described it as “comical in nature” and about “spoiled girls in college who have family money but also live the dichotomy of the broke college life” (the idea of “the broke college life” including the words “Range Rover” is the most Caucasian thing I’ve heard today), and how an ex will “remember all the horrible truths” after y’all hook up. Exactly none of that translates to the song’s delivery, which is bullshit wish fulfillment. The beat’s nice, but it can’t drown out how stupid this song is. The Chainsmokers might have escaped “#selfie” but the move from “novelty act” to “mediocre hit maker” is like boasting you’re never getting older: staying the same means not moving forward.

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You Should See Them Live: blink-182 at Riverbend in Cincinnati

A rock show on a late night in the summer singing along to the songs you love with a beer and your friends. There’s no getting more pop-punk than that.

But that makes sense, right? If you’re about to see one of the biggest pop-punk groups, why half-ass that shit? You and everyone else in the cheap seats are going to end up shouting “LATE NIGHT. COME HOME. WORK SUCKS, I KNOW” by the night’s end, so you might as well lean all the way into that with something sleeveless, swoop bangs, and Chucks (dear God, so many Chucks). You know that the slightly retooled blink-182 aren’t going to hold back, and at Riverbend, neither did thousands of their fans.

Really, the slightly retooled blink aren’t just doing well for themselves, they’re flat-out doing well. This is a pretty serious reversal from the last 7 years of rough going for the Mark, Tom, and Travis show; despite a bright reunion in 2009, sessions on an album stalled, and 2011’s Neighborhoods proved to be both a lousy blink album and a middling Angels & Airwaves one. A few years of tours and false starts later, guitarist and co-founder/singer/writer Tom DeLonge left the band (again!), leaving drummer Travis Barker and bassist co-everything Mark Hoppus to manage the band, the hits, and the dick jokes. They recruited Alkaline Trio singer/guitarist Matt Skiba to pinch hit for some 2015 tour dates, after which Skiba formally joined the band, and about a year later, here we are with California and a substantial tour. And already, California has outsold Neighborhoods‘ opening and generated its own hit; blink is friggin’ back.

So why’s blink-182, a band that was written off as lightweights in its day and even now gets the backhanded “great singles band” compliment, having a moment? It could be that us filthy, nostalgia loving millennials finally have enough disposable income to buy lawn seats by the score, but this doesn’t account for just how packed Cincinnati’s Riverbend amphitheater got, or why me and my gaggle of mid-20’s friends felt dangerously close to “old” for the crowd. Is California just so great that it captured the zeitgeist and brought in new fans? Wishful, but no; it’s handily better than Neighborhoods, and I’d even rank it above the more-filler-than-you’re-remembering Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, but ultimately it feels more like a good transition record than an outright good one.

No, I think the answer is so simple, it might as well be a blink single: this is a great band with a lot of killer songs. One of my friends said afterward that she’d been nervous about not knowing what all was played, but she was thrilled because she ended up recognizing just about everything. Blink just has that kind of depth. It actually borders on overwhelming to hear them all chained together, but look at how many hits this one band has: “I Miss You,” “All the Small Things,” “What’s My Age Again?” “Bored to Death,” “The Rock Show,” “Feelin’ This,” “First Date,” “Adam’s Song,” “Dammit,”–oh man, it’s still going–“Down,” and “Stay Together For the Kids.” You’re not gonna see Sum 41 get people fired up once “Fat Lip,” “In Too Deep,” and maybe like, “The Hell Song” come through, but blink were able to blow through half a dozen hits early on, lean into deep cuts and fan favorites for the middle, and rally again with more hits for a surprisingly fun and robust set.

And what a set it was. The songs were almost entirely played as they were written–I think the only difference was “I Miss You” used phasered clean guitar instead an acoustic–but shit, “Feelin’ This” and “Dysentery Gary” are weapons-grade catchy out of the box. Curiously, just about all of the band’s “ha ha, penis” throwaways appeared, but 1. hearing “Built This Pool” within shouting distance of the world’s biggest flat-surface swimming pool was pretty funny, and 2. they’re actually kinda entertaining as set-breathers. The rest–new songs like “Cynical” and “The Only Thing That Matters,” the classic “Carousel,” and deep cuts “Violence” and “Reckless Abandon”–held up against the more famous stuff, mostly based on setlist placement and performance (an aside: I more or less memorized Enema of the State as a mopey, broken up with 16 year old, so even though I know “Dysentery Gary” and “Dumpweed” shouldn’t fly today, ain’t shit stopping me from screaming along with “Fuck this place, I lost the one/I hate you all/your mom’s a whore!”).

IMG_3707Each member brought it for that setlist, too. Travis Barker is every bit as manic a drummer live as you’d expect (And he, the notoriously quiet member of the band, spoke! He said “Hey, Cincinnati! at one point! Hoppus even quipped “Yeah, Cleveland didn’t get that shit”), and he kept the solos to a tasteful minimum. Skiba’s a full-time member now, but still somewhat in gracious guest-star mode: he deferred to and assisted Hoppus on banter, but any apparent oddness about him playing DeLonge’s parts dissipated halfway through “First Date.” Because let’s be honest: you don’t replace the dude who wrote half of your songs without people noticing. It’s like trying to hang out with your friends knowing there’s been a rift between some folks; you’re all going to know. So instead of talking about the man directly, we were treated to a little something I’m calling…

The Top 4 Times blink-182 Subtweeted Tom DeLonge
4. Replacing him with a competent singer: Skiba seems to get on well with everyone in the blink operation, and his parts on California are enjoyable enough, but the fact that he won’t sing like someone’s constantly spraying his throat with a Super Soaker’s gotta count as a mild Tom burn.
3. “Not Now:” I’ve always gotten the feeling Hoppus, like all of us, thinks AvA is kind of silly. Introing the last pre-hiatus single DeLonge wrote with a jokey robot voice announcing “Commence. Space. Noises.” helps that theory.
2. No Neighborhoods: There are legitimate reasons for blink to let this LP fall away (it’s underwhelming, and Travis Barker’s been surprisingly candid about how not-fun it was to make), but stiff-arming “Heart’s All Gone” because it was on the band’s most DeLonge-centric record feels deliberate.
1. ”Man Overboard:” “Man Overboard” is straight-up about that time Mark and Tom fired a dude from blink-182, and if you think DeLonge wasn’t on Hoppus and Skiba’s minds as they sang tut-tutting lines like “We can’t depend on your excuses/Cuz in the end, they’re fucking useless” and “You can only lean on me for so long” then, I don’t know, I’ve got a book of alien conspiracies to sell you. This was definitely a subtweet.

Whenever I heard any news about blink in the fallout of their most recent band shake-up, I subconsciously thought “Why is this band still going?” And I didn’t think it out of malice! If anything, I was wondering why Hoppus and Barker couldn’t just dose up on post-punk records and churn out another +44 album, but I get it now. blink-182 is going to continue so long as Mark Hoppus can brandish a low-strung P-bass and chirp his way through “Dammit” because Mark Hoppus lives for being in this band. He led the charge the whole night through, whether that meant blasting through 16-year-old songs, bantering with the crowd to break out their emo swoops “Because it’s 2002 and your parents don’t ~understand~ you and Taking Back Sunday”, or telling jokes about the humidity as his gelled up mohawk lost the fight with Cincinnati’s abhorrent mid-August weather. blink-182 is what he’s done with his life, and instead of finding that limiting, Hoppus honestly seems to relish it. There was this disarming moment when, at the end of the night, he put down his bass and, as everyone shuffled out, flopped into a pile of confetti at the front of the stage with joyful abandon and just lied there for a second before leaving the stage, sweaty arms now plastered in confetti. It just seemed like a dorky, fun little moment for himself. Endearingly goofy, sweaty summer fun; that’s blink-182 in a nutshell.

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