Thursday, August 14, 2014

album review: 'worlds' by porter robinson

It's one of the unspoken truths of synthpop that if your instrumentation and production is good enough, your lyrics won't matter. Hell, you can say that's true for the majority of modern pop music, but synthpop is probably one of the more egregious offenders, mostly because of its lineage. Throughout its early years and especially around its breakthrough with new wave in the early 80s with the rise of MTV, synthpop could get by through keeping its instrumentation and image edgy and cool, and deeper substance beyond that was just a bonus.

Now keep in mind I don't exactly think this is a bad thing: if you're not a good lyricist, it's probably best to keep that simple or minimalized and focus on the elements that will at least drive people to dance, but as a critic who appreciates when lyrics inform the context and emotion, it means I don't tend to have a lot to talk about when discussing synth albums, especially those emerging from the EDM scene. And thus I was a little wary about discussing Porter Robinson, a producer and DJ signed to Skrillex's record label and who got sick of the mainstream EDM where he made his name and wanted to shift things up. Now I don't mind the step away from EDM towards synthpop, but some of Porter Robinson's main influences did make me a little cautious. For one, he claimed to draw a lot of his influences from the high-energy j-pop scene and anime, both of which I know but I can't say I'm a huge fan.

But then again, I'm always willing to try new things, and I did mostly like that Hundred Waters release on Skrillex's label earlier this year, so I gave Worlds by Porter Robinson a chance: what did I find?

Well, after a few listens, I can say this definitively: Worlds by Porter Robinson might just be the poster child of music that I can say is not for me in nearly every shape in form. Seriously, from instrumentation to vocals to production to the sparse scattering of oblique lyrics, this record is the sort of album that upon repeated listens gets the exact opposite reaction it's trying to evoke. That said, even though it's not to my taste - at all - is it bad? Honestly, no, and that's part of the problem, because I can definitely see this record finding an audience - it's just that said audience will not be me.

But then I asked myself the question: okay, what's the issue here? I like synthpop, and get a good melody going and I can even like EDM. Hell, with the sweeping, almost maximalist production and lighter tones, it reminded a fair bit of a few trance acts I like or even like Owl City or M83 or Passion Pit, three acts I mostly like. And when you take a look at some of the melodic compositions, the resemblance starts becoming uncanny: decidedly pop melodies, gentle interludes on stripped back keyboards, complimenting the autotune with vocaloids in order to enhance that synthetic appeal, all of it with a sensibility and tone that can only be described with one word: twee. Now I've talked before in my St. Vincent review about how that particular brand of indie pop tends to wear on me extremely quickly, but I will confess that Porter Robinson's brand of it lasted longer, mostly through playing to a childlike sensibility in terms of lyrics and melodies that definitely recall the anime influences. The keyboards tones are clean, the glitchiness is confined to the chiptune segments, and with the exception of the vocals, the production cranks everything up to eleven for that EDM-inspired, heavy chorus.

Now, albums in this vein live and die by their melody lines, especially if the guest vocals are mostly situated midway to the back in the mix and are practically rendered anonymous thanks to effects, and to his credit, he does manage to pull together some decent melody lines. I liked the shimmering keyboard riff that drives 'Sad Machine', the decent enough if a little conventional-sounding chords on 'Hear The Bells', the gentle understated arrangement at the beginning of the gorgeous 'Sea Of Voices' that probably could have transitioned better into that pounding beat, the rich string arrangement that jarringly leaps into a static-saturated choppy mess on 'Fellow Feeling' that sounded like someone tried to mash up Lindsey Stirling with Clipping and completely screwed it up, and finally a symphonic swell on 'Goodbye To A World' that comes across pretty well if it wasn't for the heavy beat driving through it. And really, you should all see the problem here - Porter Robinson is a good producer when it comes to controlling his layers, but at the same time his need to inject pounding EDM-inspired beats into so many of these songs adds a lot of heaviness that doesn't really balance well with the twee tone. And that's not even touching on when he adds distortion or chops up these beats more aggressively, rarely letting the songs build substantial atmosphere - if he's going to use synth tones that frequently feel flat and oily, and not in the good way some chiptune can be, the least he can do is give them a chance to breathe.  And yet that doesn't happen either, as many of the mixes feel overstuffed and overloaded with squealing, whirring effects that only peripherally relate to the melody, if that, in a way that definitely shows its J-pop influence.

Now believe it or not - and I can't believe I'm saying this - but as much as I said lyrics don't tend to matter in synthpop, Porter Robinson actually manages to craft a loosely coherent theme on this album. Many of the songs feature iconography of being small and alone in a much larger, much more oppressive world, with circumstances to change things out of reach, at least on this planet, and only sticking together providing the slightest hint of relief. And honestly, that vulnerability is believably conveyed by many of the singers, mostly thanks to the production situating them a little deeper in the mix and keeping things 'cute', for lack of a better word. And while the songwriting is boilerplate, it's reasonably well-structured and does lend this record a bit of distant humanity. And hell, I'd even argue that it can support some of the driving heaviness. But then comes 'Goodbye To A World', where the distorted narrator says goodbye and flies away, promising to craft a new, less oppressive world - promises abruptly cut off, leaving this album on a sharp moment of anticlimax. So not only is the solution to run away from that implacable world, but it's capped off with a aborted promise, leaving us behind? Does anyone else feel like if the Wizard Of Oz just ended when the Wizard flies away in his balloon, leaving Dorothy in Oz with no way to know how to get home? 

Okay, look, this album is harmless, but it's the sort of record that does not resonate with me in the slightest, either in its resolution or its sound. And the more I think about it, the less I like it. Sure, there are a few colourful melody lines and I like how the lyrical conceit was executed, but it rarely feels like he gives the tracks enough room to breathe to really highlight them, undercutting every moment of subtlety. On top of that, his background in EDM definitely shows in the maximalist aesthetic, which might reflect his j-pop inspirations but here comes across as overstuffed, overdone, and considering most of the album runs long for its lyrical subject matter and instrumental ideas, more than a little exhausting. I get why people like this sort of music, and if you're into j-pop and EDM, it's probably much closer up your alley, but for me it's a 5/10 and an extremely tentative recommendation if that. Porter Robinson might have shown his kawaii view of this world, but it's not the world for me, and that's just fine.

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