Tuesday, April 7, 2015

album review: 'adventure' by madeon

So one comment I tend to get a lot is that you should never compare artists even within the same genre, the point behind it being that since every musical act is trying to create a unique vision or through a unique execution, and thus direct comparisons will fall short in capturing that. And on some level, I can see the relevance of that argument: unless one artist is straight-up ripping off the other - which does happen, let's not kid ourselves here - it's definitely worth as a critic highlighting the unique strengths and weaknesses of an act.

But the more deeply I delved into this argument, the less I buy it. For one, when evaluating the 'unique' strengths and weaknesses, how does one explain what that uniqueness is without drawing a subsequent comparison to an established act? Not only that, if you don't understand the historical evolution of certain music, you can lose necessary pieces of context the artists themselves are trying to create. In other words, on some level the comparison is necessary and can even be a positive thing in order to better explain an artist's relevance not just to today's music, but that of the past. If I were to trace this argument further, the whole 'you shouldn't compare artists' argument is a very modern idea, tied to the belief that everything and everyone is unique and special, which I believe does a great disservice to artists in not providing a scale of quality. I instead would argue success and failure comes in different forms, which links into an acknowledgement of artistic intent while still allowing an critical eye.

Why bring all of this up? Well, when I started getting a ton of requests to cover Madeon, the stage name of French producer Hugo Pierre Leclercq, I saw a lot of comparisons being made with Porter Robinson and I immediately braced myself, especially considering the two men are friends. Now when I initially covered Worlds by Porter Robinson, it wasn't so much that the album was bad but that it did nothing for me, trying to balance a very lightweight, twee tone with overweight EDM, choppy percussion, and a lot of unrealized potential thematically, to say nothing of some naked comparisons that could be made to many other acts in his genre. Now it seems like Madeon was sidestepping some of the comparisons - mostly by getting several artists to feature on this album directly. Immediately I didn't have a good feeling going into this record, but I figured I might as well give them a fair shot. Just because Porter Robinson didn't resonate with me doesn't mean Madeon's 'Adventure' will fall in the same category, right?

Well here's the thing: to some extent I'd place Adventure by Madeon in the exact same category - it's not my thing, it doesn't really resonate with me, I don't really see the appeal. And this record has been sitting with me for a while now as I've been trying to process and understand it - and after a lot of listens, I think it's starting to click. I'm not sure I like it all that much, but there are pieces here I can appreciate.

So to explain all of this, let's start with the instrumentation and production, which might seem to fall in the same overproduced brand of synthpop/EDM that Porter Robinson resides, but with a few crucial differences, most notably in choice of synth tones and beats. While there was more reverb and fuzz on the edges of Worlds, to enhance more of that distant, otherworldly vibe, Madeon's synths are much cleaner and vibrant, not quite the gleaming punch of CHVRCHES but almost runny and liquid as they flow across the arpeggios and progressions. There still is reverb and elements of chiptune along the edges that add more rough edges - and yes, it does feel overmixed and a little too busy for my tastes - but even those elements are significantly crisper and never are used to obscure the vocals, which are much more prominent. And here's where the percussion comes in - don't get me wrong, there still are thicker progressions, but for the msot part the drum machines are much thinner and choppier, almost seeming to break the synth and vocal line apart instead of actually playing another note. Or if there is a melodic change, it seems driven more by that jittery percussion than a natural progression on its own - which might be necessary to drive a clean break, because there are some tracks where the progression just bleeds across and it doesn't sound very good.

And this is arguably where we run into the biggest problem I have with this album - for as much as it tries to build to a rollicking groove, by linking the percussion and melody like this the mix feels simultaneously jittery and clunky, spasmodic as it flutters back and forth, yet unable to build a lot of momentum thanks to the synth tones that lack tightness. It doesn't help matters that so much of that melody, especially when from the vocals, is driven by pitch-shifting, which I've never liked or found all that appealing. All the more frustrating is how Madeon tries to shift his mix to better suit his guest vocals, which instead of forming a good fusion instead only highlights how awkwardly it fits with some of them. The easy example is 'La Lune' with Dan Smith from Bastille, where the synth tones are deeper to match the choral multi-tracking for the verses before the synth melody after the chorus clumsily dribbles through, and that's before the pitch-shifting of the backing chorus, all of which lacks the thicker bass and textured percussion that made Bastille stand out. 'Pay No Mind' with Passion Pit fairs better with a rollicking nu-disco groove, but the percussion can feel clipped on the verses and chorus and the vocal production makes frontman Michael Angelakos sound like Owl City. Hell, so does Mark Foster on 'Nonsense' - and honestly it's one of the few times I can actually tolerate his voice, mostly because he stays more in his lower range. Really, this album gets better with more actual tightness courtesy of guitar lines on 'Beings' and especially 'Pixel Empire' or thicker synths like on the darker heft of the Depeche Mode-reminiscent 'Imperium' - either that or letting the synth tones drift and flow, like on the Aquilo-supported 'Innocence'. As for Madeon himself, whenever he gets behind the microphone his voice is so masked in warped pitch correction and shifting to almost be rendered anonymous - with, of course, the exception of 'Home', the song where Madeon's exhaustion drives him to make one of the exultant tracks on the album.

So what drives that exultation? Well, this leads into lyrics and themes and the arc of this album, if there even is one. As I've said with synthpop, if the music's good enough the lyrics can be irrelevant and most people won't care - but there does seem to be a little more going on within these tracks. The album begins with songs implying a love from the past returning to our protagonist's life, and though he is distrustful, he re-engages for a whirlwind that neither quite understand, trying to recapture old days that ultimately leaves both frustrated and exhausted, by her free spirit and his desire to find out who he really is. And unsurprisingly, like most old flings it seems to end in a break-up, still with a connection that goes beyond words but something they just can't sustain. In other words, there seemed to be a lot of direct parallels with the debut album from Bleachers Strange Desire - until you realize that the final track 'Home' focuses more on Madeon's relationship with the music and creative process itself. And this got me thinking: was it possible Madeon was not referring to some actual girl but to his own creative muse throughout this album? It wouldn't be the first time an artist encapsulated such a thing in the context of a troubled relationship, and the lack of greater actual detail surrounding the girl and relationship could imply greater abstraction. But on a certain level it does make sense - a flighty muse that Madeon distrusts because he knows how it can consume him, where he encourages her and himself to pay no mind even though it's never quite the same, fighting to get her back despite the abuse even he knows he'd be happier if he let her go. In either case, even though I suspect the second interpretation might be a stretch, it definitely does feel like an adventure.

So in the end, I'm not going to say I even love or even like all that much Adventure by Madeon, but I have a firmer grasp on it and I get the appeal. It's jittery, runny and doesn't really flow well, and most of the guest stars aren't at their best against this production, but it does feel like a cohesive project and does show a lot of opportunities to grow and improve. And believe it or not, I think the lyrics might be one of the bigger strongpoints of the album, which is always a welcome touch. In other words, I think I'm going to give this album a very light 6/10 and something of a recommendation. Keep in mind this music isn't my thing: if you're a fan of Porter Robinson's brand of glossy synthpop EDM, you'll definitely like this. Otherwise... well, the title's accurate: it's certainly an adventure.

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