Wednesday, July 15, 2015

album review: 'communion' by years & years

So it's a tagline on Billboard BREAKDOWN that the 'Canadian charts are always better' - and while I'll be discussing that peculiarity a little later, I wouldn't say it's always completely true. As much as I'm a proud Canadian, I'd be lying if I said that a significant chunk of songs that are bigger hits up here are simply due to early crossover from the UK, where they tend to debut first.

So why isn't the phrase 'the UK charts are always better'? Well, quite simply, the UK Official Charts are goddamn weird. Putting aside the fact they don't have a recurring rule which can mean songs can return to the charts without warning, the smaller population means that weird oddities can surge from out of nowhere to huge success. Sometimes these oddities are awesome, most of the time they're unbelievably annoying, and there are points where I'm baffled who in their right mind thought letting this into the mainstream public was a good idea, but the wild disparity of quality means I tend to be a little wary of hits crossing from the UK.

All of that being said, the initial buzz coming for the newest album from UK synthpop/electronica trio Years & Years was extremely positive, even in a year overloaded with synthpop. The group formed in 2010, and began releasing singles in 2012, but it wasn't until 'King' went to #1 in the UK that I started taking serious notice of them and figured I might as well check out their debut album Communion, which is an amalgamation of several EPs - how is it?

Well, it's alright, decent enough. I can't help but feel a little underwhelmed thanks to all the hype behind it, but I can definitely understand why Communion is popular, a very polished, bass-heavy synthpop record that focuses on a painfully rough relationship and our narrator slowly regaining his self-respect and agency in the breakup. But as much as I can respect the intent, the execution across the board exasperates me, either through production missteps, problems in the writing, or a frontman who I really don't find nearly as interesting as it's expected I should.

Yeah, might as well get this out of the way: Olly Alexander does very little for me as a frontman, mostly because for a good half of this album he doesn't bring nearly enough intensity or emotive presence for me to really engage. At his worst, he reminds me of a cross between Troye Sivan and Sam Smith with a higher register - and I'm not sure if that vocal tremble is intentional, because it sure as hell undercuts his emotive arc as the album proceeds - namely, that I find it hard to buy he's gaining more strength to move on when his voice still wavers, even with the support of Autotune. At his best, he reminds me a little of the overly slick pop-R&B pioneered by 90s boy bands or maybe Justin Timberlake in a pinch, but there's none of the tightness or intensity or visceral punch to really grab me.

Granted, it's not helped by the instrumentation and production, most of which cribs notes from modern, bass-and-reverb-heavy electronica that desaturates and muddies the melodies and doesn't give them nearly the attention they deserve. And when the most punch you get are from the crescendos of drums or backing choirs that pop up on songs like on 'Worship' or 'Desire' or 'Gold', the last easily being the best track on the album thanks to a great melodic chorus. And that's the frustrating thing - when you get down to some of the melodies or beats, it might not be all that original but they are satisfying. The washed out swell of 'Shine' that gets some gleaming punch on the chorus, the low synth hollowness of 'Take Shelter' or 'Desire', the great piano balanced on the groove of 'Ties' to the pretty potent sparkle of 'King' that reminds me suspiciously of Madonna's 'La Isla Bonita' on the verses, these are solid moments. But I get the feeling the production gets in its own way, washing out synths or using fragments to try and compose melodies, or even songs like 'Foundation' that just feel unfinished. In the worst case you get songs like 'Eyes Shut', which is a pretty blatant Sam Smith ripoff, especially in its more opulent, stately production that doesn't match the rest of the album at all.

So with all of that being said, do the lyrics save this album? Well, for the first half, they sure as hell don't. With the exception of 'Shine' - which does not belong anywhere near the front of this album, it doesn't fit the arc at all and I'm fairly certain it's about Alexander's current boyfriend - the first half of this album focuses on Olly Alexander's toxic relationship and the process that it takes to dump and get over the emotionally abusive asshole. And man, does our frontman not make it easy to root for him, as he treats the guy with a slavish attention that seems to indicate a dominant/submissive situation - and on 'Ties', the subtext becomes text and the album snaps into sharper focus. But fine, I can get behind this... except that it's revealed very early that our narrator knows he's being emotionally exploited, and it's murky why he still puts up with it. Take 'Foundation' where he spends the song describing why the relationship should end before throwing them all aside for another chance, or on 'Take Shelter', where we get lyrics like 'If you wanted to get used / you get used!' And sure, that's definitely true if you apply to a BDSM situation, but most of those are built on a foundation of emotional respect that doesn't exist here. We get hints of wanting reciprocal love on 'Worship', the more confrontational moments of 'Ties', the attempt to distance the emotions on 'Desire', but across the majority of this album, I found it increasingly hard to buy that our narrator is getting over this guy, mostly because he keeps giving this jerk more chances to try again and you get the feeling Alexander would take him back in a heartbeat. And that's not even touching on songs like 'Eyes Shut', where our narrator does a lot to make himself completely unsympathetic, where even he seems to be aware that evading the problems about the lack of emotional equality isn't going to fix anything, and trying to pull the same unavailability schtick won't work. And regardless, behaving like a moody child only exacerbates the situation! 

In any case, the album does show him moving on, and I did like the nice touch that shows how the emotional abuser doesn't know how to react or move on himself when there's nobody to abuse. But to get to that point, we have to go through a fair chunk of this album listening to an admittedly detailed picture of an unequal relationship. And this is where the framing bothers me and becomes a problem. For most of this album, Alexander is asking the audience to buy into his earnest passion for this guy, and I frankly don't see enough there in the writing to wonder why we as the audience should care about this relationship, especially when it's emotionally abusive. And sure, Alexander is aware of this and mentions it frequently, but for a good half of this record he's too weak-willed to definitively end things, and I can only sympathize for so long. It feels unnecessary melodramatic - and unfortunately plays it very straight. And while it got to the right ending, I'm not sure I liked all that much how it got there.

So do I recommend Communion by Years & Years? Well, here's the thing: overall, there are things I like. Conceptually, the arc is interesting, the melodic songwriting is good, there are some potent grooves, and Olly Alexander has some potential. But the album takes too long getting to drama, clutters itself unnecessarily in the production, and is ultimately held back by a frontman that just doesn't really impress me and doesn't seem ready for prime time yet. For me, it's a light 6/10 and even that feels generous. Folks, if you're looking for synthpop or electronica this year, look at Lower Dens or The Wombats, and Bjork already made the mother of electronic breakup albums with Vulnicura. I see this debut's appeal, but frankly it doesn't measure up.

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