Wednesday, June 15, 2016

album review: 'the human condition' by jon bellion

I'll admit being really surprised when the requests starting pouring in for this one. In fact, this is probably the most requested album I've had in weeks to cover, and my first response was, "Wait, we're talking about the guy who sang on 'Beautiful Now' with Zedd, right? Are people really interested in a debut album from that guy?"

Now before you all jump down my throat, let's be fair here: if you only knew him from that song, it would come as a surprise that he released four mixtapes over the past five years or is affiliated with Logic's personal label Visionary Music Group. And on some level I completely get why Logic would like this guy: he writes and produces his own work, steps into genres adjacent to hip-hop, and has the ambition to push into high concept territory. Hell, Bellion's goal with this album is not to attract the attention of hip-hop heads but Pixar so he could score one of their films! And that's only one piece of his bizarre list of influences: Kanye West, Coldplay, Andre 3000, John Mayer, J Dilla... many of these things are not like the others! So okay, at the very least this debut album promised to be interesting, at least, so I decided to check out The Human Condition - what did we get?

Well, ambitious is definitely a fair word to describe it, because Jon Bellion's The Human Condition is unlike the majority of records you'll hear this year. Not only is it a weird mishmash of styles and influences, it also aims for the sort of incredibly earnest bombast that you can either embrace outright or laugh at - mostly because it's way easier than it should be. If I were to describe this album... imagine Owl City trying to be Kanye West, and the fact that it manages to work if only in pieces and not blow into a million pieces is a testament that there's something here that works. And that's the thing: it might not be often, but when this record manages to work, it can get kind of magical.

But by now a bunch of you have probably stopped at 'Owl City trying to be Kanye West' and your brains have short-circuited a bit, so can I possibly say that works at all? Well, for one let's start with Jon Bellion himself. I wouldn't say he's an incredible singer, but he is expressive and he pushes into some impassioned territory - although in terms of performance, the little sigh he gives midway through the final chorus of 'All Time Low' is kind of inspired. What caught me off-guard was his rapping - and look, it's not great, but it's not bad either! His bars flow together reasonably well even if he does stretch some rhymes, and just like Kanye, he's got his fair share of corny references, especially on 'New York Soul (Part II)'. I think the larger problem is that Bellion hasn't quite found a way to transition his harder flow into his singing, and even when he gives the transition room to breathe like on 'Weight Of The World', the hip-hop segments don't quite fit as well, even when the verse isn't his. And on that note, I didn't really like Blaque Keyz's verse there - again, when you have lines like 'swagger like Kenny G', it's hard to take things seriously - with the far better guest vocals coming from Travis Mendes doing his best Patrick Stump impression on 'Guillotine', by far the best part of that song.

Granted, if you're looking for an issue with this album overall, transitions would be it. This album goes for very much of the same sonic collage approach that Kanye has embraced in recent years, and while it does lead some inspired moments, it's not often they materialize into a full song. Part of this is that Jon Bellion is not subtle in his instrumental motifs - 'Woke The Fuck Up' contains a sample of someone waking up on the chorus, 'iRobot' contains all the autotuned vocals you'd expect - but more often it's because Bellion is trying to fuse so many disparate elements together, from elegant strings sections to acoustic grooves to more atmospheric synthlines to some of the blockiest percussion you'll hear all year. And all of it is fused not just through layers of compression, but past the same sort of blocky vocal sampling and pitch-shifting that can really start to grate on my nerves. And I know this is an aesthetic quibble on my part - I've gone on record for years not really liking pitch-shifted vocals, and they easily are the reasons why the overlay on 'He Is The Same', their presence all over 'Maybe IDK',  and the choppy hook of 'Woke The Fuck Up' don't work for me. And yeah, when they do come together, you can easily recognize how much of this album is biting from Kanye's sound, even if I'd argue it does capture the misshapen bombast that has given Kanye's work some bite in recent years. And I honestly think that when Jon Bellion steps closer towards rock he kind of nails it: that guitar solo on '80s Music' was too short but definitely welcome, the late-80s-inspired groove on 'Morning In America' with a vocal melody on the hook that I could swear interpolates Smash Mouth, the acoustic groove on the first half of 'Weight Of The World', he captures the ambiance better than I expected. And while there are a few synth choices are hit-and-miss - why wasn't that synth running on the outro of 'Woke The Fuck Up' the main driving groove of that song, I'll never know, easily the best moment on this record is the closer 'Hand Of God'. I'll come back to why in a bit, but let's say that between the counterpoint melody on the second hook and the choice to recruit Sheldon Ray and the Andre Crouch Choir paid huge dividends.

But now let's get to the meat of things, the lyrics and themes. Bellion has gone on record saying that The Human Condition is about simply that: the human experience, and cutting to the root of our human flaws and failings. Now that's painting with a broad brush and it shouldn't surprise anyone this record is kind of all over the place as a result. We get songs about overcoming depression, failed relationships, newfound success and staying honest to oneself, and even death in the family - and yeah, there's definitely a part of me that wishes this record got more specific both in lyrical detail and thematic consistency. And while I do appreciate that Bellion is making it very clear that getting to the humanity past fakery and image is all the more important if anything wants to be fixed - 'Fashion' and 'Morning In America' are great examples, I also like that he highlights how often he doesn't know what he wants or the real answer, with '80s Films' being an abstract snapshot reconnecting with someone he knew in high school and finding only fragments of satisfaction. But that lack of subtlety shows up again in the writing, especially on the relationship tracks, in that Bellion's got a bit of a martyr complex and can seem a little too sorry for himself, and while I can appreciate him not wanting success to go to his head, there are points that try my patience. And this is where we get to the elephant in the room, the big man in the sky that connects Owl City, Jon Bellion, and Kanye West together, because about midway through this record, it becomes clear that it's Bellion's faith that keeps him on the straight and narrow more than anything else, almost to the point where he casts a girl as a temptress on 'The Good In Me'. And as such the drama can feel a little undercut, and it's the big reasons why it's amazing 'Hand Of God' connects as well as it does. It's the sort of theatrical epilogue song that reprises several tracks across the album - and man, the thematic connection can feel tenuous - and it pushes Bellion to the edge of his faith, but the truth comes through that God was there all along, and Bellion just needed to make that connection. Nothing has changed, he is the same, and with the huge instrumental swell and triumphant step away from the brink, this record lands on the highest possible note, the sort of landing that so much Christian music has never been able to stick. 

In short, this is the sort of debut that's easy to mock for its hyper-sincerity, its clumsiness, its occasional corniness, and its indulgence, especially considering how often it doesn't work. And let me stress there, this album can definitely fall flat - but playing high risk, high reward means that the best songs here are something special, with 'Hand Of God' up there with 'The Way Home' from Southern Family, 'I Can't Give It All Away' by David Bowie,  and 'The Dreamer' by Anderson .Paak as some of the best closing tracks I've heard in 2016. As such, I feel confident giving this record a 7/10 and a recommendation, especially if you have more tolerance for pitch-shifted vocals than I do. This is the sort of debut I want to support - definitely not perfect, but with the ambition and scale to make something truly great with a little more fine-tuning. Fine work, definitely check this out.

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