Monday, March 5, 2018

album review: 'nation of two' by vance joy

Okay, so if you've been following my schedule, you'd realize that this isn't quite what I was looking to cover today. I was looking to give Oceans Of Slumber this slot, but a few listens in made it clear it was either going to wind up on the Trailing Edge or that I was going to need at a few more listens to really process its weight - and when it's over an hour and embraces a lot of doom tones and textures to compliment its progressive and melodic death metal side, that's not something I approach lightly. And given that Phonte was going to demand some serious, lengthy consideration too for his long-awaited sophomore project, I looked to the elevated tiers, and once I moved past the sort of absolutely weird, quasi-insane bandcamp project that I'm not sure my mind is fully fit to process, and a top ten list that's going to take some time to rework, I wound up with this - and I had the sinking feeling that all of that deliberating would wind up more interesting or listenable than Vance Joy.

But that's the thing with silent majority acts like this Australian singer-songwriter - critics are often left bewildered or shrugging with albums like his 2014 debut, maybe able to highlight one song that stands out - usually the big single - while the others are left high and dry. And with Vance Joy, while he released seven singles from Dream Your Life Away, the one that caught everyone's attention was 'Riptide', which peaked at #30 and somehow got enough points to wind up on the year-end list in 2015. And while the strength of that song got Vance Joy to move two million copies of his debut record... I couldn't stand it. Seriously, it was the last song to get cut from my worst hit songs of 2015, the sloppy brittleness, weak vocals, utterly wimpy or misconstrued lyrics, gutless skitters backing up a tempo shift that never paid off, the pop culture references that made less and less sense with every listen, the only thing I could respect about it was how it laid the foundation for Ed Sheeran to take a similar cadence and sound to success with 'Shape Of You'. And if that was considered the strong point of his debut, and even sympathetic critics weren't finding that same magic on the follow-up, we could have something pretty bad on our plate here. But again, there's more people listening to this than every record I would have otherwise covered in its stead, and I've been surprised in this lane before - hell, Niall Horan came out of nowhere last year with Flicker and there's at least similar creative DNA with Vance Joy, so what did I find on Nation Of Two?

Honestly folks, I was prepared to get good and angry about this one - it's been a while since I've found any deeper catharsis in ruthlessly dissecting this brand of 'white-guy-with-acoustic-guitar' music... but the truth is that while this isn't good by any stretch, on the surface it's not bad enough to inspire real passion and it's made for an audience that won't care about its quality. Of course, go beyond the surface and it rapidly becomes apparent that the only reason Vance Joy gets a pass at all is because his audience doesn't care enough to challenge him - unfortunately for him, I have no such compunctions.

So let's start out with the least objectionable thing here: instrumentation and production. And for records like this it's a simple enough sell: keep the acoustic guitars warm with your three-or-four note melody, maybe add some softer percussion or piano, the reason this sort of folk works is that it cultivates that intimate atmosphere. And yet two songs in we're getting faster grooves with little bass to speak of against increasingly brittle snares and cracks, and even the introduction of horns that continue to crop up with little body or presence beyond trying to blow these tracks into being much bigger than they should be. And I'm honestly a little mystified why Vance Joy thought this would work on songs like 'Lay It On Me' or 'We're Going Home' or especially 'One Of These Days' - he's no Mumford & Sons or Of Monsters & Men, and given that he produced this record himself, it's clear he's struggling to give these tracks propulsive presence beyond the tempos, which is a twofold problem when your production is typically framed to be more intimate and you're not willing to give your bass or kickdrum significant pounding presence. Instead you get multi-tracked millennial whoops and handclaps and some attempts at syncopation on songs like 'Take Your Time' to highlight a growing sense of clumsiness that eventually comes to characterize the entire damn record, from awkward prechoruses like on 'Alone With Me' to increasingly limited guitarwork. And look, I'm not expecting grandiose acoustic solos in the subgenre Vance Joy's working in, but if you're going to fill up space with underweight whooping that can feel increasingly dissonant with the acoustic tones being chosen, that's a problem.

Now in truth I was willing to give Vance Joy more of a pass here - most of his whole appear is his youthful naivete and sincerity, he's every willowy-voiced high school kid strumming an acoustic guitar and crooning love songs, basically the Plain White T's of the modern era. But the more listens I gave this project the more Joy's voice grated on me, and a big part of this can be linked to his choice of tone. He basically has two registers he uses on this project: his flat, slightly more nasal tone which is tolerable on 'Like Fire' if unremarkable in comparison with every other modern folk singer; and a higher-pitched warble nearing falsetto that was grating on 'Riptide' and is just as grating here. What's abundantly clear is that for the songs trying to bring more bombast and tempo is that Vance Joy cannot sell them, and while on a few tracks he gives himself a slightly fuller vocal arrangement, he's not like Ed Sheeran or Marcus Mumford or James Bay, his upper register doesn't have an edge, and that's not counting songs like 'Alone With Me' where he picks a style of delivery that just doesn't mesh with the content or overall tone of the song, which leads to the sort of dissonance you can't really excuse for such simple songs.

And really, if you're looking for where that dissonance becomes a serious problem, it's in the songwriting and lyrics - not a good sign at all, given that when you have a minimalist, 'white guy with acoustic guitar' arrangement, that's usually the foundation of your entire appeal! Now going back to Vance Joy's persona, much of his appeal is rooted in a certain homegrown relatability - these are simple love songs for the most part, and so long as the fundamentals are sound, the bar is not high for his storytelling. And yet somehow Vance Joy struggles even there - there is no damn excuse for so many verses that don't even try to rhyme and feel painfully lacking in greater detail to flesh out the stories, you'd think someone of his age would have the life experiences to add a little more meat here! But there is something strangely childlike about the writing of some of these tunes, most notably a noxious sense of presumptuous entitlement that isn't even sold with the charisma to make it tolerable! And it starts early: he's a drunken mess on 'Lay It On Me' and he hopes if all of his defenses come down she can 'lay it all on him', but I'm not getting any sense of emotional distance or defense mechanism he's using, or how on 'We're Going Home' his language choices are so vague that while it seems like the meeting is fleeting on the first verse he's going for a huge romantic chorus, which gets kind of obnoxious on the 'Call If You Need Me', the first song, as it's clear he didn't spark a flame with this girl but she winds up coming back to him anyway - bit of a contradiction there! And yet the deeper in the worse it gets: the opening line of 'Take Your Time' is that there's an 'ocean inside his head', implying greater depths that are plainly not there and turbulence I'm not sure I buy either, but don't worry, if you put in the time and break down his defenses, it'll all be worth it. Then there's 'I'm With You', which actually seemed to be playing slower as he's getting over an ex and doesn't want to rush things, but by the time we get to the bridge he's saying 'and it's high time that you love me', a line so damn pompous that I don't think anyone could credibly sell! Next is 'Like Gold', a song I actually kind of appreciated in cutting the cords to the past... except by the time we get to the bridge, it seems to be going for a romantic reconnection and the history being disregarded might just be everything he screwed up before! But the absolute worst case is 'One Of These Days', where he is literally describing how this person needs to get their life together and that the moment she stops looking and gives up 'your chance', he'll come find her 'one of these days' - so on a record where you're talking about letting down your defenses and dealing with your issues, you get this condescending and sanctimonious?

And at that point I was done with this - I could discuss how the jaunty melodies don't work at all on 'Bonnie & Clyde', an utterly generic song about living life to the last because you don't know when you'll go, which only barely makes sense before we get a second verse that goes nowhere, or the song 'Little Boy', which snaps to events of him growing up and only further highlights his immaturity with really sloppy vocal mixing, but what's the point? Again, there's a limit to how much a critic can really castigate this amateurish junk, because the silent majority audience that doesn't give a shit about critics will buy this more than nearly any record I'll give critical acclaim this year, and they won't care about the gutless immaturity and ugly framing and underweight production and utterly by-the-numbers composition and songwriting. But for everyone else, there's absolutely no reason to get this - there's nothing as immediately distinctive in sound and content as 'Riptide', and the stuff that comes close doesn't work at all. For me, this is a solid 3/10 and definitely not recommended, and again, while I don't expect this to change anybody's mind, there are records in this lane with quality, and I have to hope that at least by calling out the bad stuff, we can move closer to those.

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