Friday, January 19, 2018

album review: 'blue madonna' by BØRNS

The more I think about BØRNS as an artist, the more I get the impression there is less to think about than I'm assuming, that he's actually less interesting than he might appear. 

Granted, some of this is not helped by me covering his debut Dopamine a full year after it was released for my anniversary in 2016, where he felt all the more out of place in the larger context of the year. But even with that there's a part of me suspicious that the image and flair was more compelling that BØRNS himself would ever be, considering he didn't quite play to his strengths as a singer and he had a bad tendency to indulge in production gimmicks and lyrics that felt increasingly hollow in their hyperstylized Americana, especially considering there was often a rock-solid glam and pop rock core to many of his compositions. It was a good project, but it's not one I found all that memorable just a year and a half later.

And thus I was skeptical about Blue Madonna - I drew comparisons to him sounding a little in his delivery and content and production like Lana Del Rey, and look who has two guest appearances on this project! And when you consider he pruned away all other producers and cowriters besides Tommy English, it was hard to avoid the feeling he might be doubling down on influences that didn't always flatter him, but could result in a more focused experience overall. And hey, Lana Del Rey has steadily been getting more tolerable, maybe this would be pretty stylish or fun, right?

Well, kind of... but I have to be honest, without that striking standout like 'Electric Love', I found Blue Madonna a fair bit less likable than Dopamine was. It's not bad, per se, or even mediocre - I definitely see it finding an audience, especially if you bought into the heady rush of hypersaturated love songs that characterized his debut. But Blue Madonna finds BØRNS tilting into a direction that's a little less tolerable across the board, which unfortunately made it a fair bit less fun.

And what gets more exasperating is that issues from his debut haven't exactly gone away, so let's start with BØRNS himself. And look, while I'm not exactly wowed by this guy's willowy crooning, if he chose to pivot more into his clearer falsetto or just belt with any sort of intensity, I'd probably like his delivery way more. But like one of his closest influences and now collaborator Lana Del Rey, he prefers to stick with delicate, midrange, somewhat slurred crooning that just isn't nearly as compelling or gripping, and when if he chooses to go higher and louder, he adds vocal fuzz, which is such a slapdash attempt to add any sort of edge. And like those faint traces of pitch-correction, it's just not needed - with the rough multi-tracking on tracks like 'Faded Heart', it sounds like he's doing a Matt Bellamy impression when his own tone is plenty clear and powerful on his own! 

Of course, the other issue is that it clashes with the production, and while I complimented Dopamine on its fusion of retro-disco, glam rock, baroque pop and even traces of wiry vaporwave, there was something close to a cohesive structure at the core with grooves that had some bite and kick to them - and yet Blue Madonna seems to retreat away from this, despite being what was easily most liked and memorable about his debut! Instead we get the addition of more psychedelic synth tones and effects that further emphasized the overcooked sound - maybe a solid bass or percussion groove at the core, but with the more jangling guitar lines stripped of most of their fire and replaced by blocky and buzzy tones that remind me more of a limp St. Vincent impression, coupled with arranged elements and washed-out synth tones on loan from Tame Impala, good melodic compositions wind up falling flat. Take 'We Don't Care' - even if you recognize the groove jacked directly from George Michael's 'Faith', it's a great foundation that the microtonal guitar line and synth horns and even that garage rock-inspired bridge could really build on... and yet none of it has real color or bite. And that's really the consistent problem with much of this production: a lack of real bite or momentum, and when it comes close to getting any of it, wonky production choices compromise it, from the oily compressed psychedelic touches on 'Sweet Dreams' to that incredibly oily buzz that swallows the bridge of 'Second Night Of Summer' - a damn shame, as I thought that was easily one of BØRNS' best vocal performances - to nearly any interjection of clean strings sections, trying to add a veneer of class that doesn't often match the flattened blocks of distortion or vaporwave-esque synths, which becomes the least listenable on the nasal squeal of 'Bye-Bye Darling', which already doesn't help the desaturated piano line and limp tones that characterize the final third of this record. 

Now there are two tracks that get out of their own way enough to work: the fizzy, trap-inspired skitter that leads to the synth key change on 'God Save Our Young Blood' with Lana Del Rey - not her best work, but there is some swell there - and 'I Don't Want U Back', with its firmer melodic grooves, lingering guitar leads and arguably some one of the better vocal lines - hell, I might even be able to get behind some of the wiry synth leads on 'Man' or even the jangling groove behind 'We Don't Care'... but now we have to talk about content and songwriting. And as I said for Dopamine, for this brand of oversaturated relationship melodrama, while I wish BØRNS was capable of subtlety or depth - his implications otherwise on 'Iceberg' and 'Faded Love' are almost laughable in their overreaching metaphors - you don't exactly need much if the instrumentation is tight or colorful. But since much of it isn't, the vapid pettiness of 'Sweet Dreams' or 'Bye-Bye Darling' or the shallow slights of 'Second Night Of Summer' are not nearly as tolerable - hell, at least 'I Don't Want U Back' shows some vestige of self-awareness, and 'God Save Our Young Blood' is just content to wallow in overwrought metaphors, which the bombast just makes tolerable. But on the flip side, you get songs like 'We Don't Care' and 'Man', with a pronounced apocalyptic bent in the writing, where the nihilistic attitude is 'well, everything's going up in flames but we don't care so let's hook up'... and while it's nowhere near as pronounced as what Lana Del Rey put on Lust For Life, the attitude is the same - the point of view that can only come someone who has the privilege to not know or not care about the larger consequences of the world around them. If it was delivered with at least a shred of self-awareness or intensity it could potentially work even despite bad taste... but again, we're not getting that from BØRNS here.

So yeah, with all of that I wasn't all that impressed by Blue Madonna here, and unfortunately I don't see it getting better. The genre fusion has less groove or intensity, the writing feels increasingly insipid when it's not trying way too hard, and BØRNS as a singer isn't capitalizing on his strengths - and let me stress there are strengths here! Hell, the reason most of these songs are at least passable are because BØRNS is a good melodic composer and has a knack for solid hooks, and if he picked textures with the slightest degree of spark, or even really leaned into the increasingly messy patchwork of tones, he could have something fascinating here. But that would involving trying a lot harder, and considering how oddly safe this record feels, it's merely passable for me, netting an extremely light 6/10 and really just for fans already onboard. Otherwise... nothing here is better than 'Electric Love', so yeah, I'd just go back to that.

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