Wednesday, April 12, 2017

album review: 'memories... do not open' by the chainsmokers

There's a part of me that thinks this is my fault.

See, I reviewed The Chainsmokers' second EP last year and I made the statement that the EDM duo would never release a full-length record, mostly because there was no need for it. After all, this was a duo of frat guys who treated music more like a marketing gimmick to get laid - freely admitting to being inspired by Jeremy Piven's character from Entourage - and project noxious ideas about women and relationships against their increasingly anonymous brand of EDM. Less artistic endeavor than calculation, it was the sort of utterly cynical and worthless music that would be gross and offensive to any sensibility if it bothered to have any distinct personality at all.

And yet it seems like in the build-up to this debut album, down to the subject matter of the singles, that The Chainsmokers were trying to blunt that reputation, or at least extend the long con they've run on the audience a little bit longer as their fifteen minutes tick down. They seemed to be trying to cultivate a more earnest and sincere image and shove their brand of ironic obnoxiousness down the memory hole - hell, look at the title of this album! And the depressing fact is that for most of the mainstream public it seems to be working - despite atrocious live performances and increasingly stale EDM drops, they're still selling records, and I'd put money on this project breaking a song or four onto the Hot 100 in a week or so, which is just peachy. Thankfully, I have a much longer memory, and yet while I don't think earnestness is the best fit for the band, their newest single with Coldplay isn't bad at all, so maybe something would be salvageable from Memories... Do Not Open?

...look, folks, I don't know what to tell you with this, because if you were expecting The Chainsmokers to evolve or mature or becoming interesting from EP to full-length album, it didn't happen. So while I would argue this is "better" than their last project, it's more because of guest stars that have personality and spark and because there's no equivalent to 'Closer'. Otherwise, The Chainsmokers really do remain the Reality Bites of modern EDM - somewhat self-aware of their own delinquent privileged shittiness, but instead of properly owning the consequences they deflect, project and exploit others - most notably the women in their lives - and try to justify it under a veneer of 'honesty' that doesn't excuse the blatant hackery of any actual 'revelation' they claim to reach. The only saving grace is that they aren't high-minded enough to presume they're actually bucking "the system", just pretentious enough to think their emotional drama is remotely compelling.

Now those are some serious charges to level against a record that's as forgettable as this is - make no mistake, there's going to be no fan of pop or EDM that'll be talking about this in two years time - so let's blow through the obvious issues with the instrumentation and production fast. And you know, in comparison with acts that truly own their obnoxiousness - usually for parody or some deeper point, like Kesha and to a lesser extent 3OH!3 did - it's very telling how muted and restrained a lot of this production actually is. Somber pianos, hints of acoustic guitar, beats that flirt with tropical house and skittering trap but never to the point of being aggressive or hard-hitting - hell, their brand of an 'indie rock' song on 'Break Up Every Night' features some of the most gutless electric guitars I've heard since Metro Station - and even the majority of the drops are a two or three note progression that rarely steps into aggressive dissonance. Of course, they've got the tones that sound like various forms of synthesized flatulence, like on 'It Won't Kill Ya' or 'Wake Up Alone' - especially on the outro there - but when you get a song that is actually trying for soaring power like 'Something Just Like This', their drops are so bland and recycled from other songs that I get nothing all that special. At least 'Don't Let Me Down' had a sweeping shift on the bridge and 'Roses' cycled through a half dozen different tones - there is nothing here that shows that much effort. And what blows my mind is how cheap it can sound - beyond the fake chintzy horns that show up, I heard better synth production from Owl City eight years ago than what we get from 'Last Day Alive', which features the country duo Florida Georgia Line and manages to make them sound completely anonymous through autotune against a lot of tiny trap hi-hats, along with being the furthest thing from country! Now I'm not going to say all the melodies or hooks don't work - 'Paris' and 'Something Just Like This' are salvageable - the latter mostly for Coldplay's guitar solo on the outro that The Chainsmokers seem embarrassed to even acknowledge - as are a few of the wiry touches on 'Don't Say', but none of it has significant groove or flow or makes you actually want to dance, something that even Calvin Harris figured out by now!

But again, none of this should not surprise anyone who has been listening to The Chainsmokers recently, or that frontman Andrew Taggart has no significant charisma in order for us to buy into his sensitive tracks. It's actually a little startling how often he's shown up by his guest stars, the most stark being Chris Martin who has far more skill at sounding earnest, and Emily Warren isn't bad playing the girl who is entirely too exasperated and done with our frontmen making excuses... but go a few songs later and of course she still wants them. Hell, this album utterly wastes Jhene Aiko on 'Wake Up Alone', where despite being successful she is still plaintive and hoping the guy stays the night... did any of you two listen to Souled Out or even TWENTY88, how in the Nine Hells does any of this fit with her established and considerably more complex artistic persona? It calls to mind something I've consistently observed with The Chainsmokers and how they write songs for female singers versus the ones they write for guys: men are allowed to be sensitive and earnest and thus deserve sympathy and consideration and all of the pussy for being 'honest', and the girls are then framed as either cold-hearted in not putting up with it or so plaintive and desperate and needy for these bad boys where they'll make every excuse for being mistreated. Emily Warren plays both parts on 'Don't Say' and 'My Type', but even when she sings backing vocals on 'Paris' it's implied in the subtext as he's going to keep sleeping around, or especially for Louane doing her Alessia Cara impression on 'It Won't Kill Ya'. And then you get songs like 'Break Up Every Night', where the girl is so crazy she breaks up and then 'fucks him back to life' and he's just enjoying the ride - it's implying a lack of emotional intelligence in these women that just feels fundamentally dishonest in its framing, and an awful sort of wish fulfillment at that.

But again, I've talked about this before - this was indeed the record where The Chainsmokers were trying to get more 'real' and 'honest' with its audience... and I can't be the only one who sees the bait-and-switch here, right? Let's assume that Taggart actually is being 'honest' here on songs like 'The One' or 'Bloodstream' or 'Honest', that his confessions of cheating or his tone-deaf statements came from a real place and he's owning all of his flaws by putting them on record - the problem is that honesty in art without acknowledgement of consequences or assertions that anything is going to change or any deeper admission or exploration into the fundamental loneliness or melancholy that might be at the roots here, it feels like a cheap justification to continue on the same path. I don't deny The Chainsmokers making statements that they produce their best 'art' when they're drunk or high, or that it's important to put your feelings out there, but there's something remarkably guarded how they never really take that next step, with only 'Don't Say' from Emily Warren really implying any level of deeper confrontation. It's one of the reasons 'Young' doesn't work for me either - since when is love and passion hard for teenagers, especially on the emotive level, who are willing to utterly throw aside the risks and charge forward? For as much as they tried to gain cred by getting a quote from Bono to open up 'Honest', the writing and delivery consistently fail to deliver, with maybe the exception of 'Break Up Every Night'. Yeah, the behavior is awful, but Taggart playing the bemused guy chasing melodrama feels more honest than any of this morose, turgid melancholy they can't contextualize or explain - hell, it might as well be the most honest song here.

But in a twisted way, that does make sense. To bring it all back and quote Lindsey Ellis' scathing and excellent review of Reality Bites, 'being privileged does kind of suck. It sucks because it's confusing. You feel discontent, you want to whine about your discontentment, but you don't know what to whine about, so you end up making shitty movies like Reality Bites to validate your shittiness'. If that's not at the roots of any thematic arc behind Memories... Do Not Open, I can't tell what is. And just like that movie, this debut record feels stale, corporate, utterly derivative in its composition, and designed to pander to an audience who really does deserve better. I'm inclined to be charitable seeing as these guys are already perilously close to the backlash zone of overexposure in popular culture, and there are a few songs that are tolerable and not quite in the realms of awful that 'Closer' was... but not that charitable. 4/10, no recommendation, and let's all sincerely hope these hidden memories get forgotten as soon as possible.

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