Manchester pop outfit the 1975’s third album, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, tackles anxiety, addiction, trauma, self-loathing, disillusionment, cynicism, and death. Dark subject matter, to be sure, but the music around it—a thrilling combination of sophisti-pop polish, post-punk attitude, and art-student swagger—is incandescent.
The guitar figure that begins “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not with You)” conjures the image of a fist thrust into a neon sky, while “Mine” and “Inside Your Mind,” two ballads that wring every ounce of emotion from frontman Matty Healy’s voice, evoke the unmistakable feeling of a new day breaking. Everything is so bright that, sometimes, it’s easy to miss the gravity of the lyrics. But that seems intentional: this is an album for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it social media era, when real, meaningful ideas about life, loss, and everything in between require more effort to grasp than most are willing to make.
Pop has seen this sleight of hand before. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A” was so exuberant that many missed its scathing rebuke of the Vietnam War. Post-grunge stalwarts Third Eye Blind’s hit “Semi-Charmed Life” disguised a cautionary tale about crystal meth with power chords and an irrepressible, bubblegum-pop refrain. It’s no mystery why this trick has been deployed so often: Everyone wins. The average listener gets the thrill of an earworm, serious fans get a deeper story, and the artists get to keep their artistic credibility while reaching a wider audience.
The 1975’s entire aesthetic—and the increasingly profitable career they’ve forged from it—hinges on this tension between form and content. They love effervescent, walking-on-cloud-nine melodies, but not as much as they love black humor and sordid stories about millennial self-destruction. On A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, Healy seems especially preoccupied with drug addiction and the desolation that it can cause. “Love If It We Made It,” the album’s first single, begins with what is arguably the year’s most of-the-moment couplet, a sequence of 16 words that capture, with extreme concision, what it’s like to be young, disaffected, and desperate in 2018: “We’re fucking in a car, shooting heroin/Saying controversial things just for the hell of it.” It’s a song high on its own timeliness—one with a biting intellect but a short attention span. In the span of four minutes, it references Trump, Jesus, Kanye West, Lil Peep, environmentalism, liberalism, hedonism, greed, war, and love. One can imagine it as a rewrite of “Born in the U.S.A.,” but scrawled onto the back of a napkin, torched, and tossed into an alleyway.
Healy has long been vocal about his own struggle with addiction. On “Medicine,” the band’s contribution to 2014’s ambitious re-scoring of Nicholas Wending Refn’s Drive, he admits he’s no match for temptation. “How could I refuse?/Yeah, you rid me of the blues,” he sings, his voice falling somewhere between a cry for help and a sigh of pleasure. A few years later, on the anthemic ‘80s pastiche “The Sound,” he would call himself “a sycophantic, prophetic, Socratic junkie wannabe,” offering his best self-portrait to date.
However, even with its frequent invocations of heroin, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships isn’t just about drugs; it’s also about how we self-medicate in a world of such stark superficiality that nothing seems to matter. On “TooTimeTooTimeTooTime,” Healy turns to sex as a salve. “I swear that I/Only called her one time,” he sings, before quickly correcting himself: “Maybe it was two times.” Lyrically, the song is a meditation on modern infidelity. Sonically, it’s pure momentum, a mile-a-minute rush of serotonin and sweat and crackling synth-pop energy. “Give Yourself a Try,” meanwhile, lifts the central riff from Joy Division’s “Disorder” to scold some Instagram addict who spends “obscene amounts on seeds and beans online.”
There’s much to admire about A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships. It could even mark the beginning of the 1975’s “imperial phase”—what Pet Shop Boys’s Neil Tenant describes as the period when a group or artist can do no wrong, critically, creatively, or commercially. Praise has already been heaped upon the album, but it’s not without its flaws. Some of the more experimental compositions—the Auto-Tune-driven fantasia “How to Draw/Petrichor,” the Britpop wannabe “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes),” the eponymous opening track—feel like half-finished sketches without a memorable melody in sight. But maybe that’s the point. This is a content-saturated album for a content-saturated world. Here, there’s real substance and there’s total fluff, and it’s up to us to find out what’s worth listening to.
Label: Dirty Hit Release Date: November 30, 2018 Buy: Amazon
Review: Cherry Glazerr’s Stuffed & Ready Rages Against a Hostile World
The L.A. trio’s third album is a cathartic expression of estrangement in a cruel world.4
Clementine Creevy has always had a playful streak. At 15, she recorded her first songs under the name ClemButt, and her current outfit, the Los Angeles trio Cherry Glazerr, gained notoriety for a spaced-out, miniature ode to grilled cheese on their 2013 EP Papa Cremp. With Stuffed & Ready, Creevy’s signature irreverence has been transposed into scathing exasperation. The album rages against a hostile, misogynistic world, and then directs its venom inward.
That rage becomes the operating principle of Stuffed & Ready, which is Cherry Glazerr’s most mature and complex album to date. The opening track, “Ohio,” is a barometer for the ensuing ferocity, as a brief, lo-fi prelude crumbles into propulsive guitar noise. The music video for lead single “Daddi,” in which a solitary orange humanoid navigates a turbulent sea of blue creatures, captures the sense of alienation, confusion, and self-abasement that permeates the album. “Who should I fuck, Daddy? Is it you?” Creevy sneers in her characteristic falsetto. Her lyrics often vacillate between affirmation and uncertainty, probing for empowerment in a world that consistently renders her existence invalid. On “Self Explained,” she confesses, “I don’t want people to know how much time I spend alone.”
Under the direction of Carlos de la Garza, who also produced 2017’s Apocalipstick, Stuffed & Ready is Cherry Glazerr’s most sonically sophisticated effort yet. Musically, “Stupid Fish” is a gripping mash-up of the Smiths and early Sleater-Kinney, with sulking distortion interspersed with melodic bursts of Johnny-Marr-inspired guitar play. “Juicy Socks,” perhaps the album’s one moment of breathing room, finds Creevy playfully quipping over a shimmering guitar and florid bassline, “I don’t want nobody hurt/But I made an exception with him/I’m so lucky I can breathe/When the others cannot swim.”
Stuffed & Ready’s fiery denouement, “Distressor,” oscillates from an arpeggiated guitar and rolling drumbeat to a headbanging refrain. “The only faces I can see/Are the faces I pushed away from me/So I can just be,” Creevy wails, repeating the word “be” like a mantra. The album isn’t always hopeful, but it isn’t hopeless either, as it consistently provides a cathartic release for Creevy’s fury.
Label: Secretly Canadian Release Date: February 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.3.5
Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.
Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.
On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.
Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.
For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.
Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results
Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.3.0
Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.
Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.
Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.
Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.
The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.
Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon