Thursday, June 13, 2019

album review: 'infections of a different kind / a different kind of human' by AURORA

So I've talked a little about backlash that I've received for certain reviews - I don't tend to bring it up much because it honestly doesn't faze me much anymore, but there are certain cases where I'm a little bewildered at the intensity of the anger or vitriol, mostly because it comes in reviews where I'm more mixed on the project than outright negative. And 2016 was a year where I had more of those episodes than most, but what I think threw me off the most starkly was the response to covering the Norwegian indie pop artist AURORA. Now I'll admit I wasn't really kind to her debut project, but the truth was that I was more ambivalent to mixed on it as a whole - it wasn't really bad, but it also wasn't that distinctive or memorable either, a well-trod indie pop lane that frankly has only felt more oversaturated in recent years. The comparisons I originally made were to Christina Perri and Elvya, but going back to All My Demons Greet Me As A Friend now, it's abundantly clear I should have made the parallel to Florence + The Machine, just swapping out some of the chamber pop with lilting, slightly gothic folk that played on creepy girl weirdness in a way that's felt depressing conventional, or at the very least overplayed. 

So I'll admit I was in no hurry to hear more from her and indeed I skipped her 2018 project Infections Of A Different Kind, especially with the expectation this was part one to a full-album part two dropping this year, which is why I'm covering both here. And I figured I'd go in cold here - after all, Florence has grown on me considerably over the past few years and I had to hope that all the Bjork poses AURORA was making would wind up translating to slightly more interesting music, so what did we get on both Infections Of A Different Kind and A Different Kind Of Human?

So I'm actually quite glad that I chose to cover these two projects together - mostly because the broad points I'd make about one feel just as relevant to the other, and for the most part reflect how I'm still not sold on AURORA yet. And again, it's hard to avoid that many of my issues with her circle back to a blur of sonic affectations that just don't feel as original as you'd expect surrounding an otherwise conventional indie pop sound, production, and structure. And while I'd argue there are a few better songs here on aggregate in comparison with her debut, I'm also left with the consistent nagging feeling that if AURORA had streamlined this double release into a single project chock full of great songs... at the very least she'd give an a simpler, more straightforward act like Sigrid a run for her money instead of staying close or even slipping behind. In other words, while I might enjoy these two projects more than All My Demons Greet Me As A Friend, I'd struggle to call these great instead of merely pretty good.

So let's start with AURORA herself - and you know, as much as I will give her credit for expanding her vocal range and presence, it's hard to avoid the feeling that her marketing and promotion might be setting her up with oversold expectations. And thus while the album art or presentation might prompt a Bjork parallel, it's a little unfair to the more immediate and slightly more straightforward style of writing that AURORA puts forward - but that doesn't escape the parallels that can be sketched towards Elvya or Florence Welch or even Of Monsters & Men on the first disc and with the more electronic vocal filters especially towards Imogen Heap or early Sia on the second, especially when her actual timbre isn't far removed from the husky delivery that's so common in indie pop today. And while I mentioned Sigrid before... look, the lilting cadence, how AURORA approaches the more bombastic multi-tracking, there are a lot of parallels on the more conventionally structured songs, even if you could argue that AURORA is the darker, more alien and feral mirror image, although it raises an interesting question in how that's framed, considering much of her chanted, mantra-esque multi-tracking is rooted in tones that owe more to "world music" rather than any one lane in indie pop - yes, she says she's inventing languages that only she can understand, but it's not like Elyva didn't do that as well four years ago, it's often a shortcut to disguise how nothing is really being said, and it doesn't disguise where the roots of such cadences and language structures lie.

And if you're asking why I'm bringing up so many other comparisons... well, that's where those expectations come through again, because if AURORA is being positioned and promoted as so unique or distinctive within her scene - or even that she's in her own lane altogether - it's a little jarring that it's so easy for me to draw those parallels and not be wowed by what she's delivering, especially when you consider her production and lyrical style. And let's focus on the writing first, because this is where AURORA has gotten the most traction with assertions of 'otherworldly' scenes and symbolism, spanning from more feral references to the environment or spiritualism on the first disc to more futuristic iconography on the second. But if you start digging even a little into the subtext or any attempt at themes on this project, it's hard to avoid the feeling that a lot of this iconography can only be taken at surface value, where the shifting genres of metaphor feel like lyrical cosplay to add superficial flavor, but little depth, where AURORA is the chameleon at the core. And when the veneers drop away to the more conventional metropolitan reference points on the first half of the second disc... well, you're faced with the question how layered her writing can really get. On the first disc, the arc seems to be confronting that darker, unstable world which forces her to dig into her vulnerability and find a deeper core of strength, be it love or a world so wracked with pain that she craves some higher power will help alleviate it, and by the second disc, the focus is on letting those reinforced emotions fly free, and how we should aim to dream bigger and look outside petty modern concerns, because eventually if you are so chosen you'll be taken away from this collapsing world to whatever might come after. And yet the more I think about this arc, the more it feels undercooked and frequently disconnected. For as much as Infections Of A Different Kind is all about finding your internal core of strength and vulnerability in a dark world, how does that match with 'Queendom' as the opener which is basically your standard pop empowerment anthem - you'd think this would be your closer to have gotten to this point, because going darker afterwards implies a subversion. And then when you go to A Different Kind Of Human, I don't see a problem with the transcending humanity arc or even that the primary metaphor is an alien encounter, but the 'too good for this world, must detach' kind of flies in the face of how much many of her bigger songs emphasize community and trying to make this world better - they might start in the same place of self-actualization, but the final message gets muddy, not helped by placing 'Apple Tree' and 'The Seed' right after the title track and right before all the callbacks of 'Mothership'.

And you can say, 'well, these are pop songs, AURORA herself has admitted the second album is scattered, you're paying too much attention to sequencing, and besides, you should be satisfied with the layer of more distinct writing you get here'. And yet I have three major retorts to this: one, AURORA and her team has always tried to promote this material as having greater depth; two, for relying so heavily on emotional depth that can't be contextualized a lot of the writing and delivery feels pretty straightforward and otherwise direct, especially when the reinforcement of multitracking floods in; and building off that point for three, it's not like the production or sound is implying added depth her either beyond servicing the main metaphor. Going back to Sigrid, I gave her a lot of credit for leaning on straightforward, primary colour emotionality, but the writing at least implied some deeper and distinct humanity, whereas for AURORA there's a childlike simplicity to the framing in the writing where the emotional depth doesn't quite translate. And let me make this clear: this sort of framing can absolutely work just as well when the songs are more melodically distinct and the writing leans into the metaphors: 'Queendom' felt heavy-handed, clunky in its layering and poorly placed on the project, but the twinkle of the deeper organic elements and the fluttery keys against the pulsating scratch of the beat and piano foundation on 'Forgotten Love' is one of her best songs, a similar formula that paid off in spades on the gentler burbling 'The River' with the brighter CHVRCHES-esque synths or the galloping groove on 'Daydreamer'. But then you also have the achingly sad harps and cellos across 'It Happened Quiet', the creeping gothic knock of 'Churchyard' with the darker strings, ghostly multi-tracking, and sharper rattling knock of percussion, or even the fizzy alien touches and beautiful multi-tracking around the spare synthetic touches of 'A Different Kind Of Human' that's just ethereal to connect, which is no surprise why they interpolated it for the reprise on 'Mothership' to close out the album. And note that while we're still not getting a lot of instrumental melody driving these songs, the songs I highlighted probably feel the most developed either there or in the vocal harmonies... and while the multi-tracking is pretty persistent, it does get exasperating when most of this album just doesn't have the same eccentricity like 'Animal', or if it doesn't it just doesn't connect as powerfully. Take 'Gentle Earthquakes' with all the shuddering, grainy electronics and low-end rumble or the subtle stutter and washed out keys behind 'Dance On The Moon' - can you imagine how potent it'd otherwise be with more of a prominent tune to anchor it outside the vocals? Or take 'All Is Soft Inside' with its ponderous strings and darker keys or the piano-driven atmospherics of 'Infections Of A Different Kind' - imagine how potent that song could be if a hook or potent climax point actually resolved out of them? And then there's a song like 'Hunger' where the backing squawk of the tune just does nothing, or how hollow and tinny the percussion and vocal pickups sound on 'Apple Tree' or how the breathy shudder of 'In Bottles' can sound even more washed out, especially in the vocals - many fans of highlighted how the second disc is a little weaker overall than the first, and they aren't wrong here.

But to summarize all of this - look, I do feel this is an improvement from AURORA in simply bringing together a few better songs overall in comparison with her debut, but they're sprayed across two projects that are are more diffuse and underwhelming than they should be, especially when the layers start to feel increasingly thin the more you listen. And when I hear that AURORA wrote hundreds of songs in preparation for these releases, I'm left with a similar feeling to when I covered the last Carly Rae Jepsen album - if she had dug down and refined her style a bit more, which in patches I would argue AURORA did here, we could have gotten something genuinely great. As it is, I'm still not as enamored in AURORA's image and sound as many are, but I am willing to give these two as a whole a light 7/10 - the first disc is a solid 7/10, the second a strong 6/10, it averages out. And while I don't see the best moments here shining as starkly as the truly great pop I've heard this year, it is an improvement. So yeah, if you're curious and you think you'll dig the aesthetic more, give it a chance - pretty good stuff.

No comments:

Post a Comment