Wednesday, June 19, 2019

album review: 'doom days' by bastille

...third time's the charm, right?

Look, I would have every good excuse to skip over this project. I was lukewarm on Bad Blood, a project buoyed by a few genuinely great songs and a lot of underwhelming mediocrity. I got even less to work with on 2016's Wild World, saved only by 'Blame' amidst a torrent of awful production choices and writing that seemed to miss treating its acrid condescension and surface-level poetry for genuine earnest swell. And then there was 'Happier', which stripped away the traces of organic swell and groove to work with Marshmello, and basically is a song that exists - nobody will remember or care about that track in a year or two, it was Dan Smith cashing in his limited connections for a momentary crossover so Bastille is no longer a one-hit wonder.

But hey, maybe this third album would work - framed as a concept album starting at midnight and working to the morning during an extended party with explicit lyrical timestamps, this is an arc that's connected before. Hell, one of my favourite albums from 2017, Written At Night by underground rapper Uncommon Nasa, took a similar window of time with more introversion, so I was morbidly curious about how Bastille would approach this, especially as they didn't seem like a band that would make a 'party' project in this lane. So okay, what did we get with Doom Days?

Well, I can say this: the concept is at least compelling on some level, and it gives Bastille a lyrical focus I can respect. Shame the rest of the album is sloppily produced, once again failing to play to Bastille's strengths, and generally mediocre - a small step up from Wild World, sure, but that doesn't redeem a project that's trying to subvert your average party and misses at some point it needs to actually go over the top to give the satire much weight or punch. No, what this album reminds me of going out on an extended bender with your rich, "cultured" friend who has always had more money than sense and proceeds to try and make the entire night a whirlwind when you're stuck as the designated driver, combined with a lingering desire to make an album that captures the vibes of Frank Ocean's blonde or Jamie xx's In Colour, but none of the attention to detail or texture that allowed those albums to stick. In other words... hate to say it, but I've been to this party before, Bastille, and you aren't pulling it off.

And I want to start with the content, because to Bastille's credit, this is the most direct and streamlined that their writing has ever been - it might be wordy and nowhere close to as deep as it thinks it is, but when you're trying to coast on a haphazard party vibe, I'm inclined to be forgiving, given that the band does commit to a mostly realistic structure. It starts loud and raucous before souring, you get the strikeout moment in trying to hook up that prompts a brief downward spiral, before the cycle of collapse and rally hits again, a hookup is managed, and you snatch a few precious hours of sleep before the morning. I don't just believe this party exists, I'm fairly certain I've been to this party at some point - but therein lies my first issue: you're tracing this arc, but what are you doing with it? The band has admitted that songs like '4AM' are trying to imitate similar vibes from Frank Ocean's blonde, but that album was so much more organic, introspective, and detailed in its late night endeavours - hell, Jamie xx had less words on In Colour, but the production is so meticulous in cultivating the 'festival vibe' that it doesn't need them. But then you get songs like the title track which are trying to reckon with phone and porn addiction and how the world is ending around them and they're just hiding within some glamour that's cracking around the edges - and if you've heard any 'satirize the party' project none of this should be surprising - which is why it's such a disappointment that Bastille then embraces all that shallowness without much in the way of introspection at all. This is an album that opens making bad decisions and seems to hit a bottom-out moment, prepping you for some sort of reckoning... but it never happens. We don't dig deeper into Dan Smith's thinking, if he even is thinking - and it might be part of the point that he's somewhat incoherent trying to string together the next hookup by 'Another Place' - and thus the only reason why the moment of genuine triumph works at all on 'Joy' is because aesthetically it captures the rush of getting that text you never expected you would from the night before. But it only works in isolation, and doesn't really feel all that earned given the arc of the album ahead of it.

Now you might be thinking, 'Mark, so what if the depth isn't there? You're right that Bastille uses language implying greater depth than there often is, you've known this for years, so maybe they're just trying to capture that party arc in the most straightforward way possible, with no consistent subversion and you should adjust your expectations?' Okay, so putting aside we're dropping the bar considerably for this group, I'm willing to consider this except for one major problem: the band is chasing a vibe they can't pull off. A huge part of this is Dan Smith, and this is what I mean about not playing to the group's strengths: Smith is the sort of singer who can sell broad sincere emotions, which is why the lovestruck ending of 'Joy' clicks as a closer when it shouldn't and why 'Quarter Past Midnight' as the party opener does hit with some impact, especially when you pile on the multi-tracking. Hell, for as intentionally clumsy as 'Another Place' can seem, it at least seems to come from a sincere place, and you could make the argument that in going for the broad strokes Smith's sincerity would be an asset as the everyman tumbling over his head. But not only can he not hit that note - that very British, patrician air he has to his yearning, his limited vocal range, and his choice of multi-tracking has always been a sticking point across his entire career - there's also none of the wildness or instability or even sense of panic to accentuate any drama on display, which only further distances the audience from getting sucked along for the ride, and that's before you get the writing that seems to actively undercut the straightforward party. And that's before we get the blatant attempts at a Post Malone impression, of which the less said, the better.

And that made me wonder whether Bastille was really best-suited to make this sort of party record given their style in comparison with bands that can ramp the drama to eleven - think Glitterbug by The Wombats - or an act who is willing to pace themselves to lean into the vibe like Frank Ocean did, but then you realize not only is Dan Smith an awkward fit for this sort of tone given that he seems the type of person who'd want to control the flow with no looseness rather than ride it, it also translates to the production as well! Once again, Bastille produced this entire project in-house, and once again, they sound like a band that's approaching tones with a hamfisted approach to fidelity and blending, especially in the percussion which is something you should prioritize if you're going to bury the melodies all over again. Let's get the outright bad decisions out of the way first with cuts like 'The Waves', which is trying for washed-out cod-reggae with all sorts of muddy filters that sounds like an attempt to blend a bad Post Malone impression with MAGIC! and a lot of badly blended vocal filters burying any keyboard melody, but I'm not going to excuse the wonky tuning of the guitar and woozy delivery of '4 AM' which still centers the vocals and blended sample at the expense of any real atmosphere, and that's before we get the compressed percussion and horns that don't match with anything. This also becomes an issue whenever you get drops like on 'Million Pieces' or 'Nocturnal Creatures' or even just the attempt at a crescendo on 'Quarter Past Midnight', where instead of showing a gradual build-up, the percussion placement is so blocky and inorganic that it neuters the tension, which doesn't help when the vocals are trying to sell the weight of something bigger. And that's assuming the fidelity of the drums would match the clarity you get of any sort of tune or the vocal line - big assumption, given that Bastille still seems to be trying to approach a Kanye West-esque power clash and continue to strike out. And all of this dances around the obvious point that even on songs I like, none of the tones here are all that unique or distinctive - hell, give the overmixed trap backdrop of 'Another Place' or the faux-gospel/soul of 'Joy' to most other mainstream producers and you'd probably get something better - they'd probably have gotten rid of that squeaky failure of melody behind 'Joy' or would have picked crisper percussion to match the sloppy vocal layering of the title track, or gotten rid of all the compression around 'Million Pieces'!

But that raises an interesting question: Bastille are just coming off of real success with 'Happier' with Marshmello, so why on earth was this all produced in-house when they were able to find collaborative success, especially when outside of scattered U.K. success they've not found any more mainstream crossover? Well, if I were to hazard a guess, it circles back to their label Virgin EMI, who probably have realized that Bastille is the rare silent majority act - generally ignored by critics that still winds up getting airplay and mainstream acceptance - that actually has a cult following that'll buy whatever they put out, especially in the U.K.. So go for the one-and-done collaboration - which fascinatingly was not tacked onto this album to juice streaming numbers even though you can make an argument 'Happier' would fit on the album - to keep the brand and name out there and let Dan Smith put his guest vocals on other pop cuts like he did with Craig David on 'I Know You', but let the band do their own thing on the cheap for their own releases instead of shelling out for big name producers, because the fans will buy it! The only problem is that this has put a hard ceiling on Bastille going forward, because while the production remains messy retreads of better sounds and Dan Smith remains a promising but limited singer, the only improvement I've seen has coming in the focus of the writing, and without greater introspection that'll only take them so far. In other words, while this is a slightly better album than Wild World, it's still mediocre and until they're challenged or pushed out of their own ecosystem, I'm not sure I've got much interest in covering more. Solid 5/10, really just for the fans who won't care what I'll say, and for everyone else... look, nothing here is as good as 'Pompeii' or the best singles from Bad Blood, so you can keep moving on.

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