Thursday, September 25, 2014

album review: 'little machines' by lights

The more I think about it, the more I'm surprised I didn't really get into Lights when I was at university.

I mean, at first glimpse she was the sort of act I'd typically like. Indie pop with a focus on melody, Lights sparked a lot of early comparisons with Owl City with the release of her first album The Listening in 2009, mostly for her keyboard-driven catchiness, her usage of autotune to augment the synthetic sound, her occasional song related to faith, and her lyrics that toed the line between twee and outright adolescent. In fact, it was probably that last part that kept me keeping some amount of distance - her voice had more presence and power than Owl City's, but her lyrics never quite approached the same level of cleverness that occasionally saved Owl City. And to go by that first album, it'd be very easy - and somewhat unfair - to throw the Manic Pixie Dream Girl label on Lights - emphasis on 'girl' because with songs like 'Pretend' there was a certain 'regression to childhood' tendency that had some nuance but rubbed me the wrong way, even if the ultimate message of her album did imply maturity was the natural end goal.

Well, apparently Lights wasn't a fan of those particular comparisons, because most of the cutesy image went out the window for her sophomore release Siberia, at least in terms of her instrumentation. The soft, fluttering keyboards and effects were jettisoned in favour of heavy, icy dubstep-inspired synthpop, which gave the album a darker, grittier feel - and yet for some reason, it didn't really carry over into the lyrics or Lights' presentation. If anything, despite Lights' admittedly solid grasp of interesting poetry, the subject matter felt a little more mundane and pop-friendly, lacking some of the nuance that had characterized her previous work. On top of that, Siberia has not exactly aged well - while it might have preceded the dubstep-flavour that would come into prominence in 2012, it feels very much of its time in terms of mix balance and production, and as someone who has never really been a fan of the upper-to-midrange pop brand of dubstep, it didn't always work for me.

So I have to be honest, I had no idea what to expect with Lights' newest album 'Little Machines', but I was definitely curious to find out, in addition to supporting another promising and interesting Canadian artist. So I checked out the album: what did I get?

Honestly, not a lot. Let me stress that I don't think Little Machines is a bad record, but in an increasingly crowded synthpop environment, Lights definitely falls into several of the tropes that don't really grip me. It's an album that also falls somewhere between The Listening and Siberia, and yet despite bringing together many of the better elements from both albums, it doesn't really ascend above them in terms of quality, which is more than a little frustrating.

So let's start with the instrumentation and production, which as I said finds the middle point between The Listening and Siberia and then introduces a number of modern elements to fuse it all together. From The Listening comes the clear, shimmering synth tones that flutter about the mix, lightweight and breezy and not really carrying much of a driving melodic presence, a little chilly but still intimate in a way vaguely reminiscent of Owl City. From Siberia comes some of the heavier, rough-edged chunky beats that are lightweight enough fit reasonably well with the synths but still can inflate to match Lights' exuberance on some tracks. And on top of all of it is the coating of reverb that has characterized so many indie and synthpop albums released this year in an attempt to add depth in the flimsiest way possible. Because let's be honest, this album works best when trying to run on swirling adrenaline that can match the light synth tone and Lights' personality - and thus it's kind of unfortunate to see not many tracks in this vein. Probably the best 'Running With The Boys', with the guitar accenting the chorus, but there's also the lead-off single 'Up We Go' that tries to go for maximalist heft with fuzz-saturated synths against the distant guitar, the decent synth interplay on 'Speeding' that really should have been a little faster to match its subject matter, the early-80s inspired synth against the backing chorus on 'Muscle Memory', the decent bounce on 'Meteorities', and the interweaving melodies of 'How We Do It'. But the problem here is twofold: first the lack of really distinctive or interesting melodies in the keyboards to drive the songs beyond just the beat; and secondly the more modern production that seems more focused on emphasizing the beat and rendering the track heavier than it really should be.

This becomes a bit of an issue when we consider Lights herself. I'll be honest, while her very girlish delivery did occasionally annoy me on The Listening, it at least fit the production. But here we're running into a case where the vocal production is still quite synthetic and Lights is singing louder and more stridently than ever - and when placed against the heavier beats, it gives the tracks sharp edges that can feel garish and overdone. The closest analogue I can make is CHVRCHES, but Lauren Mayberry knew to temper her clear tone with poise because it needed to match the darker subject matter of her lyrics. Lights, on the other hand, is all full-force enthusiasm all the time, and that can get exhausting, especially with the aggressively synthetic tone. Granted, I prefer it to the tracks that feel smothered in reverb where it's not needed, but that's not exactly saying much.

So what about lyrics and themes? Well, remember when I said there were certain 'regression to childhood' themes on The Listening that kind of irked me but at least had context to back it up. Little Machines tries something a little similar, emphasizing youthful naivete and carefree innocence in a way that seems aggressively cute and childlike - and I'll admit right out of the gate it's not my thing. I prefer my synthpop tempered with a little more gravitas or depth, like from Imogen Heap or Vienna Teng or even some of Foxes' darker material. And the frustrating thing is that Lights is an interesting lyricist - her poetry has flavour and solid wordplay, she puts together interesting symbols and metaphors - but so much of it doesn't add up to much. I do appreciate the purity of the intentions behind them - Lights is definitely convincing on these tracks, and I'll admit the exhilarating rush of songs like 'Running With The Boys' and 'How We Do It' work in that vein. But you go much beyond that and I have a hard time connecting with it. 

But even considering that this music's audience probably isn't me - probably younger, more innocent, especially given how sexual imagery is pretty much absent from this album altogether - can I say it would work for a different audience? Well here's the funny thing: I'm not sure it does, especially when Lights goes to address slightly more serious subject matter. Songs like 'Same Sea' and 'Muscle Memory' are about being separated from one's lover, 'Oil & Water' is about divorce, and 'Slow Down' is a song asking for time itself to slow and give her more of a chance to experience the world - now do these songs seem like they would fit from that childlike mindset?  The issue is tone - the subject matter is serious, but it's not played with any sort of convincing gravitas, either through the instrumentation or Lights herself. And then you get 'Meteorites', where Lights is excited to burst onto the scene and become a star - on her third album after previous success, but whatever - and then there's this lyric, "Maybe we sound young and naive / or maybe we just want to believe." It's a moment of real self-awareness I did appreciate - and yet that self-awareness is nowhere else on this album, especially when you get to the next track 'How We Do It' that basically rejects the glam desired by 'Meteorites' that basically boils its message down to "Maybe we live just to tell our story / and how to get there'. Good moral - the prog metal act Ayreon had the same moral off of their record 01011001 with the lyric 'The meaning of life is to give life meaning' - and yet I don't get the same weight when Lights says it. Why? 

Well, I think it comes down to the record as a whole lacking drama or a tone and theme that goes beyond upward-looking exuberance.  And in a sense that's fine - if Little Machines is exploring those adolescent feelings for that audience, I'd argue it mostly works - but when you get moments of self-awareness or more mature subject matter around the edges, it makes the album feel all the more thin and insubstantial. In other words, it's not really clicking with me at all - there are a few songs I like but the lack of a melodic focus and the production really hurts it - but I can see the appeal of the album. For me, it's a solid 6/10 and a recommendation, especially if you're a teenager and you're a fan of Lights' brand of synthpop. Otherwise, give it a listen, but childlike wonder can only take you so far, and I think Lights is hitting the limit there.

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