Monday, April 28, 2014

album review: 'pop psychology' by neon trees

Here's one of the funny quirks about pop music, especially about artists who don't chart many hits: said artists will only typically be remembered for the element that stands out the most, which can often be a radically unfair definition of the band's content. And thus when the Neon Trees' singles 'Animal' and 'Everybody Talks' charts highly in 2010 and 2012 respectively, the popular consciousness is that they were a indie pop rock act who wrote plenty of songs about getting laid with almost naively teenage brand of kitsch.

And speaking as a fan of the band who really likes both Habits and Picture Show as pop albums, I can say this definitively: that's all they do. They might switch up their style from clattery late-70s/early-80s retropop to Depeche Mode-reminiscent icy synthpop, but Neon Trees almost exclusively write about songs about hooking up and having sex, or being frustrated that they aren't having sex. It's the sort of straightforward narrow-minded pursuit that can straddle the line between embarrassingly cheesy and more than a little unsettling, and this caused some critics to brand the band as one-dimensional.

That honestly strikes me as a little unfair, because Neon Trees have tried to switch up the formula across many genres of pop rock, past and present, with varying degrees of success. Personally, I think they score the most points with the committed embrace of ridiculous retro-70s cheese that worked so well for The Killers and Franz Ferdinand, but on their 2012 album there were attempts to go for darker, late 80s-inspired synthpop and darkwave tones with mixed results. What concerned me most about the Neon Trees is that the frenetic edge of their sound was slowly falling away in favour of glossier music, and while they did have a grasp of solid melodies, they might lose of their flavour, especially considering retro-disco pop returned to the charts last year and doesn't seem to be leaving any time soon. And considering I wasn't exactly blown away by their lead-off single 'Sleeping With A Friend', I was a little worried to dig into their newest album Pop Psychology. Was I worrying for nothing, were my fears unfounded?

Well, unfortunately there was some ground in my concerns, because despite the fact that Pop Psychology by the Neon Trees is by no means a bad album, it's definitely their weakest record. And perhaps the biggest problem is that my concerns regarding the band seem to be coming true, which is making the band's music less interesting and less fun. As I said, not bad, but in comparison to previous albums, the Neon Trees have been steadily going downhill and I'm not sure if they can recover.

Now before everyone jumps down my throat, consider what made Habits a great album, at least in my books: tight, well-composed pop melodies, lyrics that were shallow but never aggressively terrible or lacking in colour, and a frontman in Tyler Glenn who had a ton of flashy stage presence. He worked best in the big, broad emotions you associate with pop music, and while he was capable of depth and a more complex delivery, he was always at his strongest when he could maximize his stage presence, which paid big dividends on the better tracks of Picture Show. But on this record, Glenn opts for a more heartfelt, slightly downtempo delivery, which I do understand and does fit the tone of many of the songs and he is a convincing emotional presence, but it doesn't really emphasize his power behind the microphone. Granted, the addition of more synthetic elements to the vocal production did not help matters, but this was the first big step in the wrong direction.

So fine, the vocals had been toned down a bit, surely the instrumentation was still solid, right? Well, let's talk briefly about Picture Show, an album that didn't quite have as many killer melodies as Habits, but was still incredibly creative in terms of composition and production. It was flashy and garish and decidedly cheesy in the way that sort of retro-70s pop rock has to be, but the Neon Trees made it work. Even on songs like the much-maligned 'Trust', the band were able to mimic the best elements of Depeche Mode and fuse it with their own lyrical sensibilities to make the song work. And the experimentation is definitely still on this album, this time calling most back to the mid-80s era of synthpop, with callbacks to Genesis and especially Duran Duran. And yet, it's a direction that feels awkward for the Neon Trees because the loose exuberance that defined their best work has been cut back to fit with the tighter, more processed and electronic production, especially in the drums and drum machines. And what's worse is that a lot of the theatrical bombast that I loved about Neon Trees didn't make the transition, which made many of the songs seem a lot less dramatic and colourful.

But perhaps the biggest disappointment came in the melody lines - because not only were they de-emphasized more than ever by the production choices, especially moving the drums and synths ahead of the guitars and crushing those against the back of the mix, but the melodies just weren't that special or gripping. Granted, part of the problem was their presentation - the high-pitched guitar tonal choice on 'Text Me In The Morning' grated on my nerves really quickly, but in the majority of cases the melodies were delivered through a fuzzy, electronic haze that covered most of the production on this record. And while it did fit the depressed, more melancholic tone of the album, it didn't exactly give the melodies more life or presence for me.

And on that note, let's talk about the lyrics and themes - and here's where we hit a tricky situation, because most of the lyrics and concepts were inspired by Tyler Glenn's therapy sessions. And you can tell: tonally, the album is more serious, and the lyrics aren't the constant striving for sex that characterized the last two Neon Trees albums. And on the definite plus side, it finally seems like some element of self-awareness cropped into the framing on this album, so Tyler Glenn now seems somewhat aware of some of the questionable things he says. Take 'Teenager In Love' - where on a previous album, the cattinness of Glenn trying to get over a girl he left behind and is now pining for would have been played straight, and the fact it's not is a step in the right direction. And on songs like 'Love In The 21st Century', 'Sleeping With A Friend', 'Unavoidable', 'Living In Another World', and 'First Things First' do seem to capture some of that confusion that comes in young life when trying to figure out who you are - especially in the lyrics, which frequently prove contradictory but make sense if you understand the mindset.

But here's my problem: Tyler Glenn said that this album was both intended as a fun pop record and a more serious self-examination, and even though they try, the Neon Trees can't really pull this dichotomy off. Part of this is Tyler Glenn's delivery - his earnestness really doesn't have the nuance to make 'I Love You (But I Hate Your Friends)' or 'Text Me In The Morning' come off as anything but bipolar and the weakest tracks on the album - but the bigger problem is that the Neon Trees aren't exactly subtle songwriters. And while there are moments in the lyrics that aim for more subtle material, their writing is better suited for broader songs. It's one of the reasons 'Unavoidable' is probably my favourite song on the album - it's a love song with complicated emotions, but the lyrics are simple enough to rely more on the presentation, which might have been the best way to convey that sort of nuance. On top of that, for as much as this record claims to have a message - mostly about how it's important to find out who you are, but sometimes you need to grow up first to figure it out - it's still thin. And sure, I can respect the growing maturity, but when the songwriting doesn't quite match it and the presentation loses some colour along the way, I can't help but feel that youthful immaturity might have been the Neon Trees' biggest hidden strength.

So look, I don't dislike this album, and I do respect it was written during a complicated time in Tyler Glenn's life, but I don't enjoy it as much as previous Neon Trees albums and it definitely feels like the band wasn't playing to their strengths, especially in instrumentation and production. Now I'll admit some of this is me - I prefer bombast in my pop rock, and that's one of the reasons Fall Out Boy, Panic! At The Disco, and other such bands have gotten passes from me in the past - but even acknowledging the improvements in the songwriting, it's not enough to save this album just being decent in my books. I'm sorry, but this is a 6/10 from me, and only a recommendation if you're a fan of the band. The fact is that I've heard better pop rock released this year, and even though the Neon Trees have grown up, in the young man's game of pop music that's not always the way to go.

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