Tuesday, August 26, 2014

album review: 'TRXYE' by troye sivan

Okay, in case most of you who are new here haven't gotten the message, I don't tend to cover EPs. I tend to like looking at fully formed albums that have definitive presence and a theme behind them, which even shallow dance-pop albums can deliver.

And on that note, I tend to be a little cautious when covering fellow YouTubers. I've talked about this way back when I reviewed Karmin's major label debut album, because YouTube is a smaller community than you might think and there's always the chance that whatever I review gets back to the artist in question. Now the conclusion I ultimately drew was that I'm still a critic, and it doesn't matter what platform they started on, they deserve the same level of criticism as any other act, and to soften my typical style would be a disservice to Troye Sivan, because the implication would be, should I go easy on him because of YouTube or because it's an EP or because he's 19, that I don't feel his art can stand in the big leagues, and that's not fair to him. And considering so many of you recommended this guy, I figured I'd do my due diligence and take a look.

So, Troye Sivan. Australian, does a lot of acting and theater work, and a prominent YouTuber who has built a pretty impressive platform. He got his major breakthrough with one of his songs featuring in the hit romance movie of this year The Fault In Our Stars, based on a novel written by author and fellow YouTuber movie. Now I haven't seen that movie, mostly because that particular brand of cancer drama tends to gun for sentimentality that I don't tend to like, but I did hear Troye Sivan's charting single on the lower end of the Billboard Hot 100 'Happy Little Pill' and wasn't exactly impressed. But I kept getting requests for this EP so I figured there had to be something that was gripping everyone and gave it several listens. What did I get?

Honestly, I got very little. In fact, if I'm being impressively blunt, this record went in one ear and out the other because it felt so inert and flat to me. It's a record gunning for sentiments and tugging on my heart strings and man, does it fall flat on its face. I'm not even saying this EP is bad, but it's certainly not exceptional or interesting or something that I haven't heard in modern pop or indie pop over the past few years. In other words, it's not new or special to me, but even if I hadn't heard a dozen other acts using a very similar formula, I wouldn't like this.

Let's start with Troye Sivan, and I'll give him this: he's not a bad singer. He doesn't sing with a lot of energy or power, but his brand of midtempo presence isn't bad - in fact, it's perfectly adequate for the brand of desensitized, borderline sterile pop music that this is. Take 'Happy Little Pill' - he delivers the disaffected, blissed out, Lana Del Rey-esque vibe reasonably well, but it rapidly becomes apparent it's one of only two modes he has, and it's not a mode I find all that interesting. It doesn't help that he never really stretches himself out of this range or shows a lot of passion or investment, and as I've said before, if the artist doesn't want to care, why should I? Granted, his other mode is very quiet and earnest and I guess if you fall into the right demographic it has a certain charm, but it's also a range I don't find all that special.

Granted, the instrumentation and production don't help, and if you wanted a prime example of everything I don't like in modern pop music. Sure, the percussion production is decent, but the melody lines feel submerged and drowned out in reverb and not all that interesting when you pull them out. I'll admit the reverb is better applied than on some modern pop, giving Sivan's vocals a lot of presence, but the few moments where we get a melody the synth tones sound oily and shrill, the mix claustrophobic and overloaded with extraneous effects that don't help the overall feel of the song. Take 'Touch', a more straightforward love song and one of the better ones on the EP, but then the synth line wobbles out and it kills the momentum. Or 'Gasoline' - no song that anchors its chorus on symbolism of fire should have instrumentation this watery and painfully weak. It's no surprise that 'The Fault In Our Stars' is the best song on the album, given its more earnest presentation and placement of piano, but even still that piano melody is still anchored in the stereotypical four chords of pop music and it's not exactly interesting.

Okay, what about the lyrics? Well, what about them? If I'm going to stretch for a 'theme' on this EP, it's in trying to get through life despite broken promises and shattered illusions, either of the 'fun' of shallow partying or machismo or even in the face of one's own lies or encroaching loss. That's not a bad theme, and I will say that the overall heavy tone of this record does fit with that theme. But on a technical level, the songwriting is amateurish: the painfully weak rhyme scheme of 'Fun', the complete lack of interesting metaphors or symbolism, the fact this album really isn't saying all that much that hasn't been done better this year. 'Happy Little Pill' is basically Sia's 'Chandelier' minus the drama, the stakes and the desperation that made it compelling, and 'Fun' goes for a very 'war is hell' statement that would be revolutionary if I hadn't heard most of Linkin Park's last record The Hunting Party or Pharoahe Monch's PTSD or seen any modern war movie ever. And 'Gasoline' could have worked - a song where the narrator cheated and is torn up about it and is begging for forgiveness - but he never actually says what he did even after he said he would tell. The metaphor in the chorus implies a cleansing fire of the heart, some passion, and putting aside the fact that nothing in the delivery or instrumentation earns that metaphor, it doesn't feel earned to me, especially after his petulant behaviour in the second verse. 'The Fault In Our Stars' is probably the best written song on this record, but it's a song that relies on the film and book for its emotional pathos and even some of its imagery, like the oxygen tank in the first verse, a line that doesn't make sense if you haven't read the book.

In the end, this EP feels very broadly sketched, decidedly lodged in its teenage origin, and it doesn't really impress me. At this point, this brand of dour, reverb-saturated pop music is played out, and it tries to lend this album a lot of drama it doesn't earn. And part of it is Troye Sivan himself: as a performer, he never pushes himself, and while disaffection might work for a little, when the rest of this EP is so thin I have nothing to really grip me. For me, this EP is a 5/10 and barely a recommendation. An EP is supposed to grip you and make you eager for the album - and Trxye by Troye Sivan gave me the exact opposite.

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