Wednesday, March 22, 2017

album review: 'so good' by zara larsson

So let's talk about music distribution. Now to pretext this I don't have a background when it comes to the licensing and publishing of music, so if there's additional legal bulwarks that come up when a record is to be released internationally, please let me know - but that being said, in the internet age, there should be no good reason why any music shouldn't be available worldwide from the drop. Now when it comes to marketing, I can see it making a certain amount of sense if you're looking to stagger your sales push, but when I start doing research and I discover that the record wasn't even released digitally outside of the home country, it seems like a blown opportunity. 

So when I discovered that Zara Larsson's actually had a debut album released in her native Sweden in 2014, I had to reach out to my secret European contacts in order to somehow snag a copy. And the more I listened to it, the more I was utterly confused why this was never released - because as a pop debut, it's pretty great. I've tended in the past to place Zara Larsson in the same category as the pop upstarts launched in the wave of Lorde, but a more apt comparison, especially on that first release, might actually be Ariana Grande, because Larsson can hit those whistle notes too and she arguably had more consistent and interesting production that Ariana had on her first two releases. I wouldn't say the writing was spectacular or that Zara Larsson was more expressive than Ariana - she could tend to be a little more curt and aggressive, which narrowed her range but she could thankfully back it up - but it was a tight little project that unfortunately lags in the final third. 

And then came 'Never Forget You' and 'Lush Life' and I was onboard with Zara Larsson... yeah, 'Ain't My Fault' wasn't particularly great, but her production team had good instincts and she had writing credits on over half the album, I had hopes that in terms of pure pop music So Good would connect - was I right?

Well, I'm kind of conflicted on this project. For one, despite a few great singles I don't think this is as immediately catchy or good as Zara Larsson's debut, and I'd largely tack that up to production that doesn't nearly flatter Larsson as much as it should. But I can't dismiss the fact that this tropical production style is a trend that if done poorly can sound even more cheap and flimsy than most modern pop, and that's taking to count that I'm not wild about it as a whole. So is this more of an issue with modern trends in pop, or Zara Larsson's approach to it?

Well, the easiest way to evaluate that are the elements that would remain distinct regardless of the genre - which in this case, starts with Zara Larsson herself. Now again, I'm not expecting much here - this sort of light dance-pop doesn't need that, and how well the capricious bounce of a song like 'Lush Life' works is complete proof of it. What I have a harder time discerning is what makes Larsson's writing distinctive from the pack - she tends to party a little harder than Alessia Cara or Lorde and tends to avoid the blunt sexuality of Tove Lo, and unlike Halsey she has vocal personality and an impressive range. But despite being able to bring as much firepower as Ariana, her delivery is more blunt and sharp. I'd say she was the Christina to Ariana's Mariah in that there's more assertive effort to natural talent, but what I think would be more apt is a Rihanna who actually seems to care - still capricious and flirty, but there's earnestness to her delivery that gives her breakup songs and ballads some swell. And that definitely comes through in the writing on the big singles of 'Lush Life' and 'Never Forget You', by far the best tracks here and reflecting the somewhat dualistic nature of Zara Larsson's persona. On the one hand she can get more sexual and talk about masturbation being the only thing that satisfies without this guy on 'Only You', but she can also follow it with the post-hookup yearning of 'Don't Let Me Be Yours' where supported by an uncredited Ed Sheeran she hopes that after the makeup comes off and the buzz dies down, there's something there. And then there's the piano ballad of 'I Can't Fall In Love Without You', where she's trying to move on from a dead relationship and yet there are still lingering feelings.

But that's not saying there aren't writing problems, unfortunately starting from the very first track 'What They Say', which might as well be a self-esteem anthem that could be recontextualized as 'Gaslighting: The Anthem' incredibly easy! Or take 'Ain't My Fault', the controversial single that cooled a lot of people's enthusiasm for this record and unfortunately suffers the presumption problem that if the genders were flipped would probably ring as a lot more controversial. And then there's 'One Mississippi' written by Julia Michaels, and just like her hit 'Issues' is a 'bad relationship that feels good' song that if anything raises more alarms here with lines like 'I like the way it feels when you screw with my mind'. Even by the standards of melodrama that's a huge red flag, especially if a few lines later you're referencing sirens. Then there are just weird cases like 'Make That Money Girl', where instead of calling out female icons that the majority of the audience will recognize for their girl power anthems, we get female record executives... I get the principle, but I'm reminded of Father John Misty's recent interview where he contrasted the feminist messaging of songs with the exploitative process of pop music, and it made the song ring really hollow to me.

Because here's the thing: a lot of the writing on this record isn't outright bad, but it certainly is thin, not given enough depth or character to really stand out - which unfortunately parallels the biggest issue of this record and that is the production. And here's the thing about tropical production that so few people seem to get: for this material to not sound cheap and chintzy, it needs to have body and texture; the tones need to pick up warmth, the percussion needs to have depth. It's one reason that despite how airy and thin so much of Kygo's debut was, I still call it a pretty damn fun summer record and I'll continue to give him credit for his production balance. And yet all across this album the seams of sloppy mixing, poor blending, or even budgetary constraints show through - even on tracks where they get Ed Sheeran on guitar like 'Don't Let Me Be Yours' it's hard to appreciate because of the fake horn-like synth. And that lack of greater texture and depth isn't just all over the place, it's wildly inconsistent: despite being derivative of Ariana Grande's 'The Way', the title track's piano and beat feel incredibly flimsy, as does the quasi-breakbeat across 'What They Say' and the sandy tapping hiss of 'Sundown' or the painfully thin pitch-shifting and bombast on 'Make That Money Girl' or the overloaded yet still underweight 'Funeral', which probably shouldn't bring in tropical touches for a song about bittersweet heartbreak, at least not against that melody. And that's not counting the production choices that just do nothing for the song, like the chipmunk vocals on the bridge of 'TG4M' or the wonky vocal layering on 'One Mississippi'. But what bothers me the most is the vocal pickup for Zara Larsson - you'd think given that she's a belter she'd be given the space in the mix or at least a pickup that gives us the fullness of her tone, but more often than not it's flattened out or sloppily layered. The absolute worst case is on 'Sundown' opposite Wizkid, who somehow sounds worse - the mixing on that track was so bad I actually went to TIDAL to see if I had gotten a poor quality mix and if the FLAC was better - turns out the mixing was just that sloppy!

Now that's not saying that all of this doesn't work - there are a fair few good songs on this. But beyond the two good singles, 'I Can't Fall In Love Without You', or maybe 'Only One' and 'Symphony - the latter a delicate and decently produced but not particularly interesting collaboration with Clean Bandit - I'm not entirely enthused with this. Like with a surprising amount of Europop especially with these tropical touches how good a Zara Larsson song will sound is heavily driven by the producer, and I'm definitely not sure the laid-back vibe is a strong credit to her vocal style in the same way the more aggressive and dense synthpop of her debut was. As such, I'm thinking for this it's a very light 6/10 and a cautious recommendation. I'd stay for the singles, maybe for a few others, but after that, I could see the party ending pretty fast.

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