Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Let’s take a look at a new face today.
British synth-poppers Bastille are the latest in the crop of kinda indie bands to land a delayed, randomass top ten hit because top-tier indie artists aren’t trying for radio singles anymore. So, instead you get your Bastilles, Imagine Dragons, The Neighbourhoods, and fun.s: groups that have these massive, super-exposed hits, but arrived without any Pitchfork or pop hype. A couple years ago, Steven Hyden (probably my favorite living music writer) coined the phrase “silent majority rock” while discussing “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People to describe these bands that seemed to will themselves into popularity.
While I don’t disagree with the term, I think it’s more accurate to call these songs “designated rock”. They split the difference between cherrypicked alternative sounds and radio accessibility, and the result is an agreeable tune that sounds vaguely alternative and dignified on the charts, and works as a pop song palette cleanser for the indie crowd. They’re really hard to hate, in other words. I’ve even reviewed some (the Neon Trees’ “Animal” is likely the first), and my reactions have ranged from enthusiasm at best to slightly positive at worst.
That said, I will take slight positivity over the infinite indifference I have towards “Pompeii” any day of the week. I can’t actually say that it’s a dislikeable song–it’s impossible to hear “Pompeii” and go the rest of the day without bobbing your head to that Gregorian chant at least once–but there isn’t much to it aside from the fact that it exists. It’s the kind of song that feels like running in place for three and a half minutes; sure, you feel a little more lively during and after, but it didn’t go anywhere. Really, it almost feels like nothing’s changed at all. I think someone said that in a song once.
Alright, let’s see where “Pompeii” and Bastille (I have to assume this band’s built on Romantic language nods–release “De Gaulle” as a second single!) stack next to other Designated Rock bands. Like most other DR, they’re fairly stylized; compare the washed out filters on the “Pomepii” cover art/Bad Blood cover to The Neighbourhood’s smeary grays or the psychedelic murals of Foster the People. It’s a cool look in any case, but it’s also a quick smoke ‘n mirrors move to make a young group look more substantial than they might really be.
That same “cool but shallow” approach goes for the music to DR bands, as well. With post-punk style synths, indie-pop drums, and layered vocals, Bastille aren’t reinventing the wheel, but they don’t sound directly like anyone else, either. Like “Radioactive”, the cascade of drums, backing vocals, and rubbery production make it easier to see Bastille as a studio project than rock band, and while it gave “Radioactive” a little extra dubstep punch, the same move stiffens the rush to “Pompeii”. That big, sweeping chorus doesn’t have any guts to it, and feels anti-climatic after the building power in the verses.
A lot of that comes down to frontman and Bastille mastermind Dan Smith (Really? “Dan Smith”? Rock bands have reached a level of bullshit were the frontrunner is led by a guy whose name screams “insurance agency middle management”?). The biggest comparison for his barrel chested, British rasp is fellow sensitive ham Marcus Mumford. Both guys excel at grabbing the listener ’round the shoulder for massive singalongs about some nebulous feelings, but, like his music, Smith sounds like he’s still holding something vital back. Be it a lack of charisma or songwriting chops, but his delivery on “Pompeii” is just too brainy to have the catharsis and the meaning, man that it strives for. I’d like Bastille a lot more if they didn’t try to hard to be smart.
Lyrically, the song kinda works but kinda doesn’t. The verses are pretty clearly the reflections of someone from Pompeii–imagery of an idle city laid to ruin, quite possibly at the hands of a vengeful deity (“Where do we begin? The rubble, or our sins?”). And, like a lot of DR bands, the lyrics are actually pretty competent; the picture in the verses is great, and even has a little personality. And the chorus, which basically wrings that “If you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?” pseudo-philosophical line for all its worth, is reasonably done. Where the song falls apart is combining the two; there’s no way to pull off “nothing’s changed”, or “how am I gonna be an optimist?” when you got a front row seat to a full-body fuck by a volcano. If the two even worked together at all, I wouldn’t nitpick, but it just doesn’t take as “Pompeii” is.
Which summarizes how I feel about “Pompeii” as a whole. There’s a great song in here somewhere, but the finished product is stunted and kind of an annoying repeated listen. Designated rock can take some time to get used to, but I’m starting to write “Pompeii” off as that song with the ringtone monks that I’m never going to like. I’d rather listen to it than, say, chew on volcanic ash, but I’m more than okay with seeing the tail end of this one. I gave a few other Bastille songs a go, and “Bad Blood” stuck with me, but otherwise…eh. Maybe I’ll like their second album.