Thursday, May 19, 2016

album review: 'cloud nine' by kygo

So let's talk a little about tropical house.

Because in mainstream pop, you can't go that far on the radio without hearing its influence, and yet in comparison with most house music, it's relatively new. An offshoot of deep house that got its origins in the mid-to-late 2000s, it has become huge in the mainstream thanks to big pop crossover singles, or pop artists like Justin Bieber hopping on the sound. And really, it makes sense: the dark hollow tones of deep house could work in the right environment, but it didn't have the same sort of festival ready vibe that the lighter, more liquid tropical house tones did. And with the inclusion of a broader and brighter instrumental palette, it's the summer-ready material that might not have the bombast of the EDM of the first few years in the 2010s, but it definitely has more groove.

And yet I would make the argument that, like with so much electronic music, the US charts barely reflect the world-spanning scope of the genre. And one of the biggest cases of that is Kygo, a Norwegian producer who first smashed onto the scene with 'Firestone' in 2014 that finally crept onto the bottom of the Hot 100 late last year. But even though the United States may have forgotten he exists, the rest of the world hasn't, with multiple massive singles and as of yet the fastest artist to hit one billion streams of Spotify. Obviously there is something to this guy who has grabbed everyone's attention - along with the fact I've been getting requests for months to cover this album - and his debut album did have an impressive array of vocal talent, including John Legend, Foxes, Labrinth, and plenty more. That being said, I was a tad skeptical how well the tropical house formula would hold up over the entire record, or if Kygo could keep things interesting beyond the singles. So I hopped on Cloud Nine - what did I find?

Well, here's the thing: outside of you guys requesting this review and even in comparison to other electronic dance albums, Cloud Nine by Kygo is a prime example of a record that's functionally critic-proof, especially for me. I'm used to lyrical analysis or assessing themes, or at the very least deconstructing the dramatic impact of a record, but here? The entire purpose of Cloud Nine seems to be for chilled out electronic music festivals, where it becomes even less about the music and more about the vibe. As such, there's two parts to evaluating a record like this: whether it'd work at your standard festival, and whether it has any replay value outside of it. And in this case... well, it's not rising to the blissed out heights that Jamie xx managed to reach with In Colour, but I did find a decent amount to enjoy from this record, more than I expected, even if I'd hesitate to call it all that great.

So let's start off with instrumentation and production, and the key thing to note is that there is a fair bit to like about Kygo's formula. He's got a taste for strong underlying melodies that do stick in your head being driven by his piano, and when his mix can build some swell off the gentle ebbing bass, there's real groove to match the more textured percussion. And to his credit, after several listens to this record, I can identify a fair bit of personality in Kygo's compositions: staccato, bouncy progressions that tend to play off different cadences on the same note before shifting. And yet the key word here is formula - if you're looking at these instrumentals, only the smallest of details can differentiate some of these songs. Most of the time for the better - the gleaming sleigh bells, the layered percussion groove of 'Firestone', the occasional touches of strings that show up on 'Oasis' or 'For What It's Worth', and the thicker guitar beneath 'Fragile' that still knows when to drop out and give Labrinth's multi-tracked vocals room for the hook. But on the topic of guitars, there are definitely points where Kygo hasn't quite nailed the blend, considering his ultra-clean, reverb-touched production doesn't always balance well against the rougher tones on 'Fiction' in vocals or guitar, or on 'Raging' where the acoustic groove is good but feels swamped out by the oscillating bassy synth that seems to overtake the melody. For me, I think the larger issue is that for as good as some of these melodies are, once they get to a good chorus they don't really progress or expand beyond it, even in terms of thicker layers to add bombast. Only once this really materializes on 'Carry Me', which takes Julia Michael's earnest and multi-tracked delivery and then for the final chorus brings in a much thicker piano tone and drums to really hit a potent climax - in my opinion, easily the best song on the record.

And sure, you could argue that more of these songs aren't trying to reach those big climax points, that deep house is a more relaxed genre, but I'm not always sure that the lyrics support that. 'Firestone' talks about lighting up the world even despite Conrad Sewell not quite convincing me with raw power, 'Raging' speaks in metaphors of fire - really quite ironic, given how chilly that song feels, even despite Kodaline's rougher vocals - most of these tracks are dealing in relationship drama that could earn the bombast that doesn't quite materialize. Now in some cases you don't really want it - 'I'm In Love' is already a pissy enough song - not helped by James McMorrow's wannabe James Blake vocals - about catching your girl lying and then wanting her to crawl back, it's sanctimonious as hell. And sometimes the lyrical metaphors are a little too on their nose for their own good, like the glass metaphors on 'Fragile' that are literally punctuated by sounds of glass breaking in the mix. Or take 'Oasis', a Sia-written song that frankly should have been sung by Sia if only because she sounds best over her own material - I appreciate Foxes trying and she sounds fine, especially against that production, but her own writing can have more nuance than what Sia gives here. And then we get lyrical moments that are just weird, like the anti-materialistic 'Serious' that in addition to feeling awkwardly structured has Matt Corby deliver a scat breakdown on the bridge, or 'Stay', a song where it is emphasized very early that Maty Noyes is capable of leaving this relationship and yet chooses to stay... even when the guy cheats on her and pushes her away, well past the point of plausibility. If anything, the more lightweight tone tends to work best with simpler subject matter, like on 'Not Alone' with RHODES' soulful tones, or John Legend making a tribute song to his baby daughter on 'Happy Birthday' that really is kind of adorable. Ultimately, if we're looking for some of the most complex emotional dynamics, I'd look to 'Stole The Show', where Parson James acknowledges the relationship has run its course, but they sure had a blast together and made something special - it's a great sentiment, well-realized, and I definitely liked it a fair bit.

But overall... look, there's a limit of what I can say about this album, partially because it all starts to blur together into a vaguely pleasant twinkling blob, complete with pianos and gentle waves of bass. Cloud Nine is probably an appropriate title for the record, because on some level it really is so insubstantial, but there were enough bright moments that stuck out that I'm inclined to be on the side of liking this - I doubt I'm going to ever feel passionately about this sort of chill music, but on some level I doubt that'd be the point. Regardless, for me this is a light 6/10, but a recommendation if you're looking for casual inoffensive beach music that's more melodic and catchy that it has any right to be. Otherwise... eh, you might only remember snippets, but I can see them being good ones.

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