Monday, October 12, 2015

album review: 'revival' by selena gomez

The last time I talked about Selena Gomez at length, it didn't go well.

Now to be fair, it was one of the first ever video reviews I ever did, still extremely new to the format. And I went it with a lengthy digression discussing cultural appropriation coming off of the lead-off single 'Come & Get It'. Believe it or not, I thought it might be indicative of Selena Gomez's new direction... and yet it turned out that I really didn't have to go into that much depth, because the record was atrocious. Granted, most would say expecting anything of quality out of Selena Gomez was probably asking too much, especially considering she didn't write any of it, but considering how much I did like some of the work she did with her band The Scene, Stars Dance was a shockingly big drop in quality across the board. From her phoned-in vocals to the cheap, by-the-numbers production that tried and failed to position her as a electronic diva to the lyrics that alternated between bland and asinine, there was nothing to recommend about the record, and for once the majority of critics agreed. But I think the largest problem that went unnoticed even by me at that time about Stars Dance was how anonymous is felt. Say what you will about Demi Lovato or especially Miley Cyrus, they at least have a distinctive persona to their music that has only been more honed with age, yet Selena has always seemed a little lost in what she wants to be, defaulting to a pale Rihanna imitation almost on default.

And yet believe it or not, I had hope for her sophomore album Revival. Not was 'Good For You' a surprisingly strong song with A$AP Rocky, she has the majority of writing credits on her new record and has said this record is more personal, mostly tied to the highly publicized ugly breakup with Justin Bieber, a stint in rehab, and the falling out she had with Demi Lovato. At the very least, I didn't expect her to nuke her career like Miley did with that ninety minute disaster that has already been forgotten, so what do we get with Revival?

It's... okay, I guess. I've been sitting on this review for a good four or five days now, hoping that I'd warm or cool to this album a little more, get some passion worked up on it, but instead I get a feeling of profound confusion, as Revival's kind of all over the place, and I still don't get the impression Selena Gomez has a firm grasp on what she wants to do. And yet the bizarre thing is that I wouldn't say this record lacks cohesion in terms of its sound - it just feels kind of tepid to me.

And part of the problem is Selena Gomez herself.. and look, in the pantheon on vocal talent in pop music right now, Selena's not even close to the top. She's not nearly as expressive or emotive, and when her voice breaks or goes off-key, it doesn't so much sound raw as it does sloppy and inexperienced - which blows my mind because you'd think Disney conditioning would have ironed out those problems years ago. Now that said, there are places where Selena's delivery works: 'Good For You' proved that if she stuck with slinky, darker tracks where she's required to coo more than belt, it's a more natural fit, and her lower range isn't bad. That said, when you have songs like 'Hands To Myself' which strips the vocal production back to the bare minimum, you can tell she doesn't have a huge amount to work with. 

Granted, part of this ties back to the instrumentation and production, where I don't think anyone had the slightest clue where they wanted to take this album, as it flits between more straightforward pop, trap-flavoured electronic dance, bits of vintage R&B and baroque pop, and even the world music touches that felt weird on Stars Dance and feel all the weirder here. Part of this is a production issue: many of the synths and guitar tones feel washed in reverb or so oily they stand out like a sore thumb - that'd be your 'Same Old Love' - but then you pair it with sparse snaps out of modern hip-hop, beats that have more grit than you'd usually expect, or filters that are almost lo-fi. The clash is jarring, and not in a good way, but also not in an interesting way either, as it makes the mix feel cluttered and clumsy, overmixed and undermixed at the same time. The funny thing is when this album actually goes to one of the two extremes, like the gothic opulence of 'Good For You' with A$AP Rocky on instrumentation that might as well have come from At.Long.Last.A$AP or the very sparse piano with only hints of reverb on 'Camouflage', those are very good songs. But beyond that, I've already talked on Billboard BREAKDOWN how the synth tone just does not fit at all on 'Same Old Love', but then you have the buried melody beneath the vocal fragments and glitchier beat on 'Sober', the reggae-esque tinny tone on 'Me & The Rhythm', the stab at a world-music inspired chorus on 'Rise' that gains no swell whatsoever, and most misguided of all, the stab at Spanish guitar and that really cheap-sounding horn preset on 'Body Heat'. Most of this track doesn't work because Selena is much better playing restraint than Latin seductress, but more than anything it screams of being a Shakira wannabe track, and it doesn't come together.

But it reflects the big lyrical issues underscoring this album, and that's mostly because for as traumatic as Selena has described her past experiences that inspired this record, I get little-to-no lyrical impact. Part of this is that Selena can come across as very submissive in her writing, because even when the relationship is bad like on 'Sober' or 'Same Old Love', you don't see her taking the agency to fix it. And believe it or not, it's not quite a misstep here because it's not at all framed as being romantic or attractive, with the one time it is being on 'Good For You' and it's clear she's got more control of the situation - frankly, it's the song that Fifty Shades of Grey wished it had. But then this album also wants to have inspirational moments on 'Revival', 'Survivors' and 'Rise' and then portray Selena as more of a sex-hungry temptress on 'Body Heat' or 'Hands To Myself', and while I can kind of see it working in the first case, it's not remotely believable in the latter. And then there's 'Kill Em With Kindness', which is supposed to reflect putting forward positivity in the face of haters, but it feels like a forced mask to me and that's arguably the root of the problem I have with this album: it feels so much like a pose and an act, and considering this is supposed to be her most personal album to date, that's a problem. But maybe it's not even that: maybe it feels like an act because I'm expecting more from Selena Gomez and I'm just not getting it.

So in the end... at the time of recording this, Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber may be over for good, but really, I'm seeing a lot in common in their recent output: it's passable but tepid and generally completely boring. The more I've delved into this record the more I've realized Selena might be maturing as an artist and taking more control of her career, but this record feels too guarded and lacking in will to push it into something that'll stick with me more. For me, it's a solid 5/10 and I guess a recommendation if you're a fan of Selena Gomez... but then again, I was a fan of Selena Gomez, and this does nothing for me, so just keep that in mind.

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