Thursday, October 8, 2015

album review: 'stories' by avicii

Of all the electronic producers I've covered in the mainstream, both in full-length reviews and on Billboard BREAKDOWN, Avicii is one that continues to frustrate me.

See, those of you who have followed me for a long time know that I wasn't too kind to his debut album TRUE, not a bad record but ultimately an experiment that landed steadily decreasing dividends throughout its runtime in attempting to fuse folk with accessible EDM. And yet many of you probably know that two Avicii songs have landed on my year-end lists for my favourite hit songs of 2013 and 2014 with 'Wake Me Up!' and 'Hey Brother'. And the stranger thing is that I'll stand behind both of those choices even though I'd still argue that TRUE was only ever a decent album.

And here the crux of that argument: Avicii is the sort of artist who has a great grasp on the fundamentals and the broad strokes of his experimentation, but can get stuck on the details, which is why the folk sections of that debut album ended up working better than any of the electronic segments. Sure, he's a strong melodic composer in putting together dynamic, surging progressions and marrying them with well-textured guitars and banjos and solid acoustic grooves... but the second he starts adding in thicker beats or percussion, things kind of go off the rails. Hell, he's not even a bad lyricist - all of which makes me think Avicii might be a better songwriter than producer and performer - but I can't help but see the irony in an electronic producer who blended folk in and made it work, except in the underlying electronic production itself!

But that was 2013, and let's face it, the EDM world has changed significantly in even just the past two years. The leftovers of the folk boom that Avicii was riding is now long dead and most modern EDM has gone to the deep house or R&B/neo-soul route - that'd be your Calvin Harris - or suffered badly for it, like Zedd. Where does Avicii fall with his sophomore release Stories?

Well, that's a tricky question - mostly Avicii's album goes in about six different directions, sometimes within the same song, which leads Stories to be the sort of album that varies wildly in tone, instrumentation, and execution, which will lead some to brand this album as being colourful and varied and others to call it a complete mess. For me... well, the more I've listened through it, the more I'm inclined to lean to the latter category - but I'm not exactly complaining because this is the sort of record so overstuffed with ideas that it's hard to look away. The problem comes in the execution of those ideas, and that's where I'd argue just like on TRUE, Avicii falls short - except without the folktronica underscoring the album, it's even more scattershot.

So okay, how to describe this album? Probably the best place to start, as with most electronica albums, would be the lyrics, mostly because they tend to be pretty thin and Stories is no exception. Quite simply, Avicii tends to stick in broad, borderline-cliche generalities for his anthems, with this record gaining most of its lyrical momentum on that rush of anticipation of love coming eventually, with the stories sketching out how that might happen. Some fall exactly where you might think like the dancefloor hookup jams of 'Touch Me' and 'City Lights', but credit on the latter song for at least emphasizing how thin and insubstantial such a connection can be, only emphasized further by the usage of the vocoders. More of this record is coasting on anticipation that love will pay off in the end, like the lead-off single 'Waiting For Love' or 'Ten More Days' or the heartfelt reunion on 'Broken Arrows'. But that's not saying it can't misfire, like the awfully presumptuous mood on 'True Believer' that seems to assume that if you wish hard enough, love will come up between the two of you... yeah, okay. But really, the larger focus of this album is on that journey and that 'grind' towards his dreams, which outside of the hometown anthem 'Somewhere In Stockholm' he seems committed to let fall to pieces if he finds love in the end. The problem comes in that journey doesn't really manifest as distinctly unique as you might think, and it's hard not to listen to the reggae of 'Can't Catch Me' or the California anthem of 'Sunset Jesus' and find them overplayed.

Now granted, cliche can be just fine if you can execute it properly, and Avicii found a slew of solid singers to back him up. Simon Aldread brings the potent soulful vocals that Aloe Blacc brought on TRUE, and Wayne Hector's short but memorably rough presence on 'Trouble' definitely works, despite the song being shorter than it should be. Hell, Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes does surprisingly well in cleaner production against the strident pianos of 'For A Better Day'. And then there's Zac Brown of all people on 'Broken Arrows' who just sounds fantastic as Avicii gives his vocals plenty of room to really breathe and rely on the core of charisma that's always given him a ton of presence. And then there's Matisyahu and Wyclef Jean with the reggae of 'Can't Catch Me'... and look, it sounds exactly how you'd think it sounds, and even despite the cliche the two do fine enough with it. Where this album really stumbles is when the vocal guests can't hold up - Kristoffer Fogelmark is absolutely huge on the hook of 'Pure Grinding', but Earl St. Clair's bluesy snarl clashes awkwardly and highlights all the more how the song resembles David Guetta's 'Hey Mama' with better lyrics, but far weaker production. And that's before you get Gavin DeGraw sounding completely anonymous and stifled behind the mix on 'Sunset Jesus', or Chris Martin of Coldplay batting cleanup on 'True Believer' behind what sounds like Avicii himself in front of the microphone. And maybe it's the clumsy vocal production trying to smooth over his nasal, accented tones, but Avicii really doesn't sound that good - his strength is composition, not delivery.

And that's the thing, the guy can write fantastic melody lines that stick in your mind and give his hooks an easy leg-up, typically anchoring them in his pianos or synth lines that will inevitably ebb in and out a few times but really do drive great momentum. And like on TRUE, he's got a knack for blending in acoustic instrumentation that works pretty effectively - the reggae turn on 'Can't Catch Me' may have come out of nowhere, but it's better handled than you'd think. But you can tell that Avicii wanted to replicate the huge swell of his best material - why else would he pepper so many songs with crowd cheers and too much cymbals - and yet feels hamstrung by an EDM scene that had unfortunately evolved past it. And so Avicii ends up stabbing at whatever could possibly work and he really lands mixed results - for the most part, I liked the plucked strings and xylophones and more diverse percussion that Avicii tries to bring in to add more flavour, but it doesn't excuse how often the beat is pushed higher in the mix to jut right through his melodies, or the fact that so many of the crescendos and textures on this album feel oddly muffled and prevented from really exploding. Sure, 'Broken Arrows' might feel frenetic on its breakdown and not nearly as strong as Zac Brown's own 'Tomorrow Never Comes', but at least it actually hits that point. When you look at songs like 'Somewhere In Stockholm' or 'Waiting For Love' or the painfully weak album closer 'Gonna Love Ya', I found myself waiting for an explosion that never came. And that's before the retro disco and stabs at funk on 'Talk To Myself' and 'Touch Me' that might draw initial comparisons to Daft Punk until you realize they actually had restraint and a sense of groove this album is too jittery to manifest. The closest is the standout 'City Lights', but even it feels stiffer than it should and that skittering beat on the intro and outro feels overlong. And that's before you get tracks that try to blend all the influences and end up a mess, like the folktronica stab of 'Ten More Days' that then tries to interject funk-inspired guitar warbles and it doesn't fit, or the rollick of 'Sunset Jesus' that again feels disrupted by the brittle synth. Or 'Somewhere In Stockholm', which might have worked if the strings and snare drum actually had some brightness and texture to go for more of that anthemic vibe instead of sounding completely washed out. 

Ugh, this is frustrating, because I do like Avicii. I admire his melodies and the guy clearly has imagination and an abundance of ideas... but this is an awkward as hell album only redeemed by a few great guest performances and solid compositions. And what's all the more frustrating is that I really can't blame Avicii for all of this: you can tell he's straining to cut loose and make a bigger, more explosive record, and yet in trying to cater to current tastes, he ends up hemming himself in and not possessing the same knack for groove or production as he does elsewhere. As a whole, I want to endorse this album so I'm giving it a very light 6/10, but I definitely urge you all to check this out, as it's a case study of good intentions marred by the execution. But I'll give Avicii credit: I'm always going to cover this guy's albums, because at least they'll be interesting.

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