Saturday, November 5, 2016

album review: 'collage' by the chainsmokers

There will be no way to talk about pop music in 2016 without talking about The Chainsmokers - even if you desperately don't want to talk about The Chainsmokers.

And here's the funny thing: I'm starting to get the impression that the people who don't want you talking about The Chainsmokers in deeper detail includes the duo themselves. They'd probably prefer that you don't reference their atrocious faux-ironic sketch comedy beginnings, or the fact they were responsible for inflicting that viral marketing trash 'hit' '#SELFIE' on the world in 2014. In other words, right from the start I had a certain distaste for these guys, especially in their attitudes towards pop music, which can be aptly summed up in a quote they made in an interview with Billboard: 'even before success, pussy was number one'. Fantastic, all the proof that the attitudes typically associated with the 'white guy with acoustic guitar' stereotype can cross over: the guys who never made music out of any sort of artistic impulse, just to pick up chicks. Follow it up with an awful live performance with Halsey at the VMAs, their slagging of the band Weezer as 'thirsty', and their much-covered insults at Lady Gaga and Rihanna for either sucking or having 'no work ethic', and you can see why legitimate artists both in and outside of EDM treat The Chainsmokers with at best disinterest and at worst outright contempt.

But look, we've had assholes in music forever, I'm not holding The Chainsmokers to any sort of moral standard. No, what I find more corrosive is how it feels like so much of their music feels like an extended con run on the mainstream public, abusing the pass that's now common for pop in the cultural conversation to make some of the most cynical and hollow music imaginable. You might not like Lady Gaga's artifice or The Weeknd's nhilism, you might think Taylor Swift is thin-skinned and vindictive and Drake is overexposed and creatively stagnating, that Meghan Trainor can't back up her ego and Shawn Mendes is way over his head, but when I listen to their music, there's an artistic impulse that I might not like but is at least there. Even, who I used to loathe for his 'music-as-marketing savant' approach at least took the music with artistic integrity - even if he couldn't always execute, there was at least something. The Chainsmokers, meanwhile, freely admit in public to being inspired by Jeremy Piven's character from Entourage and seem to treat music more as a marketing gimmick to enable hedonism rather than any sort of art - so no wonder they've said they've never considered releasing a full-length debut album, because that would enable critics to drag them into a serious conversation they aren't prepared or willing to have. And that's the reason why I'm covering their second EP Collage in detail - call it a review, call it an expose, what did this Collage deliver?

Honestly, very, very little - but to be fair I wasn't expecting a lot either; it's not like The Chainsmokers aren't in the business of making deep, insightful, or even all that interesting music. Of course, it's not framed like that, and the more I dug into the lyrics the more I found elements that struck me as kind of toxic, which is one of the big reasons my attitudes on this EP slip from indifferent to outright negative - as an EP, this is cynical and calculated, and the fact that it's as bland and tasteless as it is is the real crime here. 

Now to explain this, let's start with our frontman Andrew Taggart - he's only in front of the microphone for two songs that I've already discussed on Billboard BREAKDOWN, 'Closer' and 'All We Know', and on both tracks it becomes abundantly clear he shouldn't be. This isn't even a Calvin Harris or Armin van Buuren situation where their voices can have a little unique texture - his tone is weak and lacking charisma, and he's either outmatched by a performer that's either just as bland - Halsey on 'Closer' - or is matched in a forgettable dead zone - Phoebe Ryan on 'All We Know'. As for the rest of our singers... look, Daya is a poor man's Alessia Cara and a very poor man's Lorde, but at least she has volume and clearly is trying her hardest to sell 'Don't Let Me Down', whereas CharLee is doing a Christina Perri impression and XYLO's brand of pitch-shifted and layered vocals got pretty grating, especially with that little squeal they do at the end of each verse. It's the reason 'Don't Let Me Down' is easily the best song here, and doesn't really belong on the rest of this EP - Daya is plainly earnest and trying, which doesn't seem to fit remotely with The Chainsmokers' entire appeal.

You want evidence of that? Look at the production on these five tracks - or really just four songs and 'All We Know', which is a glorified retread of 'Closer' that swaps out out those awkward glassy synths, fake cracks, and awful drop for an inert guitar tone, a popping beat, fake snaps, hints of hollow synth, and an utterly flat drop. Seriously, isn't the point of EDM to have some punch and swell to it instead of this brittle, painfully derivative slurry? Say what you will about Calvin Harris, at least he gives his songs swell! Say what you will about Avicii or Swedish House Mafia, at least they could give their songs hooks with staying power - I haven't actually listened to 'Don't You Worry Child' or 'Wake Me Up' in probably two or three years, and I can recall every word and melodic tone to their hooks! Even Kygo, whose brand of tropical house is as ephemeral and airy as it gets, at least dares to surge and build drama. The Chainsmokers have never aimed that big and it definitely shows, from the flat hollow tones echoing across 'Setting Fires' that leads to a drop that feels like the very poor man's DJ Snake, to 'Inside Out' where the buzzy synth tones feel pulled wholesale from Owl City circa 2012 with trap snares to boot. Again, 'Don't Let Me Down' is the only song doing anything here interesting, and even that's only at the bridge - before then, the desaturated guitars, fake handclaps, kazoo-like synth, gang vocals only feel flat and lazy. At least the bridge and final hook breaks into a more sweeping breakdown as the synths build a little more body, and even then, it's only in contrast to the rest of the song - it's still pretty damn shrill, all things considered. And while I could go on about how none of this is all that original or challenging in electronic music, or how there's also some pretty obvious plagiarism - the prechorus from 'Setting Fires' is near identical to a similar progression on 'No I.D.' by Colette Carr and Frankmusik from five years ago, and they did it better - but a larger point is how none of The Chainsmokers don't know how to end songs properly or on a climax - they just fade away after a return to the initial tones, which only serves to emphasize how small they feel.

But maybe that's the point - let's put aside the general fact that dance music should have swell and intensity and say that maybe The Chainsmokers are looking to capture smaller, more complex emotions in the writing. Well, that would involve analyzing the lyrics... and believe me, if The Chainsmokers wanted to make a set of catty, bitter, dejected, and overall unlikable songs, they did that. As I said earlier, the writing of this record feels lightly toxic, most emphasized by the centerpiece track 'Closer' - it's a song about spoiled college girls now hooking up with our frontman years after the relationship fell apart, where The Chainsmokers even get Halsey to play the part of that girl in this asshole fantasy - but it's not framed like that. If the writing or performances were remotely self-aware about how much of a dick Taggart appears, this could have worked, but the centerpiece of the song is intended as romantic, and combined with the disses towards her friends, it really feels dickish. And hell, read any of these tracks with female singers as connected to The Chainsmokers in romantic framing - hell, it's established on over a third of this EP - and it gets even worse! 'Don't Let Me Down' is overwrought and insecure - kind of ironic coming from Daya, given that debut album - 'Setting Fires' is self-flagellation trying to feed into some desire to save this guy by tearing herself down - even if she doesn't want to anymore the bridge implies she can't stop - and 'Inside Out', the most self-assured song here, describes a knowing relationship as 'I wanna build you up and take you apart' and 'I collect your scales you don't have to know'. The women on this album are either painted as calculating shrews or so helplessly intoxicated by The Chainsmokers that they drive into reckless hysterics, and nowhere is this framed as even good melodrama, which could go over the top to sell it... which it doesn't do. And the fact that The Chainsmokers themselves have said they intend for at least some level of irony... well, neither the writing or the deliveries sell it, and it all rings as unpleasant and manipulative.

And that's really what stinks about this EP - again, it feels like a con played on the public because radio programmers are terrified of throwing anything challenging on the radio to compete, and a public who accepts catchiness as the baseline of quality. Look beneath the surface and this is hollow, manipulative, blandly produced, painfully derivative when not outright ripping off other acts, and so damn cynical that I refuse to buy into it. There are artists making worse music than The Chainsmokers in pop right now - although 'Closer' is a prime contender for worst hits of 2016, let me tell you - but there are few that are so contemptible: strong 3/10, and no point in recommending it, because you've already heard over half of it throughout 2016 anyway and there's no real need to hear the rest! Yeah, there are a few catchy moments, but so is gonorrhea, and from everything The Chainsmokers have said and done over the past few years, they sound plenty acquainted with that. In the mean time, this is charmless, pointless, and really quite tedious, destined to be forgotten when the next fad comes along and The Chainsmokers are shuffled into irrelevancy - skip it.

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