Monday, December 7, 2015

album review: 'blue neighbourhood' by troye sivan

I wasn't looking forward to covering this album.

And really, if you took a look at my review of TRYXE last year, you'd understand why. The only reason I covered that EP was because I was overloaded by requests, and even in that case I only remember fragments of that record over a year later - mostly because it took the modern percussion and reverb-heavy brand of modern pop production and paired it with broad lyrical conceits that didn't always land and a vocal performance that I would best describe as adequate. It was a perfectly harmless EP, but that also meant that outside of fragments of 'Happy Little Pill' and 'The Fault In Our Stars', I don't remember it at all. 

So when I started getting requests to cover his full-length debut Blue Neighbourhood, I had no reason to care about this record. But then I noticed a few things: for one, the critics were praising this more than I would have expected, basically being described as a male cross between Lorde and Lana Del Rey. And while of course the latter comparison did not strike any confidence with me, it was the Lorde remark that actually spurred more interest, mostly because all of his collaborators on this debut are other Australian and New Zealand acts, the majority of which I've never heard before. The person I had heard of before was in the songwriting credits: while Sivan had the main writing credit for every song, the name that caught my eye was Jack Antonoff, member of fun. and frontman of Bleachers, one of my favourite indie rock acts to explode in recent years. And hell, all the buzz was suggesting this would be a more upbeat and exciting affair than the tepid slog of TRYXE, so I decided to give Troye Sivan another chance: what did we get?

Honestly, this is a bit stronger. I'm not going to say it's great or groundbreaking - Troye Sivan still plays in very conventional synth-driven, percussion heavy pop, but it's a step-up from TRYXE and seems to sit on the flipside for me against the rather disappointing debut album from Years & Years I reviewed earlier this year. Both are synth-heavy records exploring the themes of gay male vulnerability, but I feel Troye Sivan hits the notes a little more effectively, although whether he's got a song as good as 'Gold' on this record is up for debate.

So let's start with Troye Sivan himself, and honestly, I'm not wild about his delivery - although I will say his presence has improved. The most common comparison points to his liquid, understated tones have been Lana Del Rey and Lorde - which I can definitely hear, especially on tracks like 'COOL' and 'FOOLS' - but I feel there's a richer, more earnest and wistful core beneath Sivan's vocals than Lana Del Rey that does reflect a certain understated charisma that can make his vulnerability compelling. And yet for as often as this record wants to have those heavier, anthemic moments, it doesn't often stick the landing or make as much use out of Sivan's surprisingly solid lower range as it could. Tracks like 'YOUTH' and 'WILD' seem to be crying out for more power or real recklessness - and look, maybe I'm just a child of pop rock, but no matter how heavy the percussion is, I don't get that same sense of exuberance from Sivan's delivery, and when he's slurring his vocals like on the bridge of 'LOST BOY', that doesn't help either. Granted, I'd take his vocals over AllDay's on 'for him' - I like the intimate details in the lyrics, but AllDay's flow and tone just do not work for that song, especially considering how the instrumentation strips back to become even more chintzy. Thankfully, both Broods and especially Betty Who pick up the slack in a big way on their songs, with Betty Who's beautiful vocals adding a lot to the already excellent song 'HEAVEN'.

And on that note, let's talk about lyrics and themes, the area where I feel Sivan definitely improved the most. And what I like is the balance that Sivan keeps across the majority of this album - he presents a shy sort of vulnerability that normally wouldn't be my thing, but he's able to balance it with real desire that doesn't feel sterilized or faked. It also helps that Sivan has reached the age where he's self-aware about his own failings and mature enough to accept the consequences: ''FOOLS' takes him through the arc of a failed relationship where he had dreams of the future that only sputtered out, with 'Talk Me Down' asking for companionship from an ex where he's entirely aware that they aren't meant for each other, he's just looking for a bit of support. Now there are points where it can push my patience, most notably on 'LOST BOY' where he wholeheartedly admits that this hookup was only short term, he's messed up, and that his partner could do better - but that acknowledgement doesn't quite work when you're exploiting this guy and leading him on, dude, not cool - at least when The Weeknd engages in his self-destructive routine, he's got the foresight to keep in locked in his own world. Where this record gets more interesting, at least for me, is when Troye Sivan takes a look at the larger world, with 'COOL' showing how much he and others try to live the L.A. lifestyle when it's really not for them, and 'SUBURBIA' showing both the shallowness of his nostalgia for his childhood and yet the feeling that he is missing something by not coming home. But the real gutpunch track is 'HEAVEN', where Troye Sivan tackles both his faith in God and his sexuality, trying to reconcile being gay with a desire to get to heaven and set a good example for his future kids where ignorant parts of society have condemned such a union. Cowritten by Jack Antonoff, it's got a layer of nuance in the framing and conversation that shows the sort of conflict you rarely see well-articulated, and there's no easy answer given.

It also helps that it's one of the tracks where the instrumentation and production really does support him well with the looped piano line and the melody actually getting some decent swell. But look, if I were to highlight a weakness on the record, it'd probably be in the production and instrumentation. not it's bad - outside of a few songs being overmixed and not being a fan of all of the looped vocal snippets or child backing vocals, most of the production is exactly what you'd expect from Troye Sivan - in other words, completely compatible with modern trends in being percussion-heavy with restrained melodies and a fair bit of reverb - and as I feel I've said countless times now, when you de-emphasize your instrumental melody it's hard for songs to stick in the same way. Now all of that being said, I was caught a bit off-guard by how much actual edge this record had - from the warping synth waves on 'FOOLS' to the grittier, slightly harsher trap-inspired percussion across this record to the very punchy drums on 'EASE', there's actually a bit more bite to this album than you'd otherwise expect. And yet on a different note, the strings compositions on 'TALK ME DOWN' and 'SUBURBIA' are actually pretty damn solid on their own, and for as much as Sivan's playing the song tongue-in-cheek, the wet bass groove of 'COOL' actually did have some decent groove behind it. But again, it's hard for me to deny that while there are moments of this record that do stick with me, the fact that many of the melodies don't really have a distinctive tone beyond the wet, buzzy synthesizers and muted pianos makes me wish there was more distinctive melody to drive the album forward.

But you know, in the end, despite the flaws, I did find a fair amount to like with this record. I still think Troye Sivan's got a ways to go before he really wins me over, but this is a step in the right direction, so for me it's a strong 6/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're a fan or you're looking for some decent modern pop. I definitely see potential here, so looking forward to seeing more.

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