Shawn Mendes

The Worst UK No. 1’s of 2016 (posted April 2017)

With Rockabye covered, we’ve finally got to the end of 2016. At last, we can finally chuck the year away and leave it to fester in it’s well deserved pit. But first, time to cross some t’s and dot some i’s with the mandatory Best-Of and Worst-Of lists (posted only a quarter of the way into the year that came after it). First up is the worst list, purely because more people always prefer to read the negative stuff:



Special Mentions

‘Dancing on My Own’ – Calum Scott

101

This would’ve been No. 1 on this list had it reached No. 1 in the charts: a detestable track done by an unpleasant stalker pretending to be deep and sensitive. As I’ve already said: this song wants you ‘to deeply sympathise with a potential criminal as he does the stupidest thing he could possibly do in his situation, trying to morph a self-defeating stalker into some form of tragic hero‘. As I’ve also said: ‘Fuck it‘.



The List Itself

#5: ‘Say You Won’t Let Go’ – James Arthur

106

This song isn’t bad. In fact, I think it’s fine. It knows what it wants to do and it does it in a way that isn’t actively unpleasant. It is boring though. It takes every trope that every dull male artist used this year and proceeds to do nothing with them. Nothing. And unfortunately for it, there were only 11 UK No 1’s during 2016, meaning that the lower end of this list was always going to feature things I didn’t care for as opposed to things I actively hated. The No. 5 spot eventually became a choice between this song and Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself; Love Yourself does more interesting things so this got the chop. Sometimes ‘fine’ doesn’t cut it.

#4: ‘Pillow Talk’ – ZAYN

74

Again, I don’t hate this song. I am disappointed by it though. It was the first single from a departing One Direction member, promising a new direction for Zayn as an icon and a new type of music primed to shake up the charts. It delivered on neither of those promises. The end result is something which wanted ‘to feel like a reinvention of the wheel‘ but was ‘little more than a wheel with the word “WHEEL” written on it‘. The world does not need a post-One-Direction Zayn and it didn’t need this.

#3: ‘One Dance’ – Drake feat. Wizkid & Kyla88
I don’t get Drake and I particularly don’t get this. It’s a miserable, confused, unsatisfying piece which apparently counts as a romantic club hit. I mean seriously, how are people enjoying this? That said, this got it’s position not due to it’s internal qualities but due to its effects on the industry as a whole. Firstly, it was No. 1 for 15 weeks. 15 weeks! Given how dull and contentless this track was, that constituted a complete pausing of the entire record industry for the whole spring. And because it was a massively successful record produced by one of the biggest names in pop, it was immediately followed by a lot of copycats. The result was the second half of 2016: a bloated, unmoving monolith of musicless tracks mumbled by an endless series of uncaring hacks. This song ruined pop music in 2016; culturally, it’s the worst thing Drake has done since “YOLO”.

#2: ‘7 Years’ – Lukas Graham

75

My review of this song is a 3,000 word monolith of me trying to figure out if I like it or not. As time has gone on though, I’ve been able to come down on a firm opinion on it: it’s crap. I can appreciate it for it’s scale and grandiosity; what I can’t appreciate is how malformed the syntax is, how messy the lyrics are, and, most fatally, how awfully self-important it is. Even worse than this is Lukas Graham himself whose sense of ego wafts off him like BO from a well-worn gym sock, particularly given that he doesn’t have the writing chops to justify it. This song needs to get over itself, much like Lukas himself.

#1: ‘Stitches’ – Shawn Mendes

77

The vapid whining of a nasal hack. Fuck it.


So that’s the shit dealt with, now onto the good stuff. Next time: the top 5 UK No. 1’s of 2016…

A No. 1 Review – “Cold Water” by Major Lazer feat. MØ and Justin Bieber

Part One
(in which I don’t talk about the song)

I haven’t updated this blog in a while. In between moving house, starting a PhD, working a part-time job, trying to understand Brexit and staring dumbfoundedly at Donald “Racist Paedo-Rapist” Trump, the blog has ended up taking a backseat. It didn’t help just how godawfully uninspiring pop music was during mid-2016. Every new pop song released that year became some anonymous man whinging pathetically about loneliness against a murky soundtrack of nothing. These types of song were welcome when they were a bubbling subgenre combating the more sociopathically masculine songs prevalent during the Club era of pop, but as a dominant mode of pop, they’ve just become overbearingly dull.

They’ve also become overbearingly fowl. Pretty much every new song by a male artist recently has been the same, and they’ve all been horribly offensive. To pick just three examples:

Calum Scott – Dancing on my Own 

101

A painfully trite vocal delivery accompanied by standard non-existent acoustic accompaniment, designed to sound like the emotional story of a poor boy who’s been unfairly rejected to cover up the fact that the song’s lyrics are actually about a stalker who is tailing the object of his affection while she and her boyfriend go on dates. The narrator has secretly followed his target and her partner to a nightclub and is singing the entire song from the corner of the dancefloor, moaning about how she won’t look at him. Frankly he’s lucky she hasn’t seen him, otherwise he’s liable to have a restraint order slapped on him. And maybe, just maybe, he’d be less lonely if he didn’t spend all his time hiding in nightclubs, pitying himself. The result is a song that requires you to deeply sympathise with a potential criminal as he does the stupidest thing he could possibly do in his situation, trying to morph a self-defeating stalker into some form of tragic hero. Fuck it.

Shawn Mendes – Treat You Better

102

Shawn Mendes (again!) is whining about how he would treat his love better than her current partner, because he’s a man and thus knows what’s good for her better than she does. Because that’s what’s best for a woman: to have her opinions controlled by a man who decides what she does/doesn’t like for her. Presumably her current boyfriend is giving her too much autonomy while she should be in Mendes’ bedroom, preparing herself for future sex. Fuck him.

Michael Buble – Nobody But Me

103

“Baby, I get a little bit jealous / But how the hell can I help it / When I’m thinking on you? / Maybe, I might get a little reckless / But you gotta expect that / What else can a boy do?”

I don’t know, Michael Buble: how about you not be a reckless, jealous asshole; can we expect a man to do that? Michael Buble’s love-interest is so beautiful that Buble can’t help but become a controlling, paranoid arse in her presence. Because a man being a unlikable, quasi-abusive prick isn’t the man’s fault, it’s actually the fault of women because they’re just too damn sexual. And of course, Michael Buble’s intensely sexist nature is treated as something which is light-hearted and funny. He’s so nice, isn’t he, that Michael Buble; so full of banter; so cute; so charming. While he dances around, freely admitting that he knows he’s a terrible person and doesn’t feel like changing that; he’s so nice, isn’t he?.

“I know, know, know that no one would ever blame me”

Actually, yes I will. I blame you, Michael Buble, for being a jealous, reckless, emotionally manipulative, lying piece of shit. It is entirely your fault. Try to be better, or fuck yourself.

I could go on. The Post-Club era of pop has become the go-to genre for assholes to gain empathy and credibility by portraying their pathetic sociopathic personality defects as tragic flaws enacted upon them by women. What used to be a relatively feminist form has now become home to ugly Men’s-Rights bullshit. And this is the default mode of one of the most dominant forms of mass entertainment. It can go die.

There is another type of Post-Club song which is at least tolerable though: the “I want to support my love” type. There are an awful lot of men who don’t want to control their lovers but instead just wish to be there for them, including Charlie PuthZayn (to a lesser extent), and now Cold Water’s Major Lazor, Justin Beiber and MØ. Yes, underlying these songs is the same type of egotism which defines the “I AM EVERYTHING A WOMAN COULD WANT, WHY AM I SO LONEY, ME ME ME WAH!!!!!” type of Post-Club song, coming with the implication that the woman’s life would be unbearable if the man wasn’t there and thus basically writing her own resilience and sense-worth out of the picture entirely. At the very least though, they have the consciousness to feature a man trying to make the world better as opposed to the Michael Bubles of the world who are actively making it worse and have simply decided not to care.

Part Two
(in which I actually talk about the song)

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The problem is that the “Support My Love” songs are still just really bland with there being almost nothing to actually differentiate them. Take this song – Cold Water – which is a minimalistically composed track using a water metaphor to describe the narrator’s emotional turmoil – LIKE. EVERY. SINGLE. OTHER. SONG.

This is particularly painful given the people involved. MØ is an actual credible artist with a individual style and everything. Major Lazer is the fantastic guy behind the idiosyncratic Pon De Floor and the frankly batshit Bubble Butt. And while Beiber is definitely the weak link of the trio, his more recent work shows him finally adding a bit of substance to his work. These people joining together should be able to produce something with a bit of flavour to it. Alas not.

The main problem with this song is just how pre-functionary most of it is. Let’s take the water metaphor, which I’m not sure even counts as a metaphor. Justin Beiber’s and MØ are boyfriend and girlfriend, MØ being so depressed that she feels like she is “drowning” in “cold water” while Beiber is willing to “jump right over into [the] cold, cold water for” her if it’d help. At no point do either use any puns, wordplay, imagery or allusions to sell this scene and it’s emotion to the audience; they just state their emotions and intentions through a vaguely nautical lexis and pretend that there’s somehow a literary quality in this. “You feel you’re sinking.” “I will jump right over into cold, cold water for you.” “I will still be patient with you.” “I won’t let you go.” These are just short, sharp, unemotive statements. They sound like a schoolchild who was given a bad report and is writing how they’ll take steps to be better. There’s a clinicalness to it all; a sense of stoicness which undercuts the fact that it’s supposed to be about complicated emotional states.

Of course, pop music lyrics are infamously declarative. One of my favourite songs ever is So Lonely by the Police and most of that song is just the words “I feel so lonely” repeated over and over again. There are certain types of emotion that this declarative style works for and certain types that it doesn’t though. So Lonely is an angry, desperate song: the repetition of the words “I feel so lonely” is thus an anguished cry made after all else has failed, particularly when squeezed through Sting’s idiosyncratic voice. 90’s rave music was incredibly self descriptive too, one of it’s most famous lyrics being “EVERYBODY DANCE NOW!“, but it was a genre of songs designed entirely to get people dancing: the directness of their lyrics thus serves to keep the audience focussed on the dance and ensures that their central lyrics remain as commands.

In short, these declarative lyrics are good for release. Sting has pent-up emotions which have built-up until he has no option but just spurt them out at quickly as he can, while rave music wants people to stop moping and start dancing (and by God will it make them). The problem is that Cold Water isn’t about release, it’s about managing things, working through issue and remaining methodical. It needs to feel thought-through; there needs to be some substance to it. Yet there isn’t. Directness was the wrong path to take; we needed something more subtle.

Part 3
(in which I conclude)

That said, above all else, the main issue is that both the “I AM GREAT” songs and “I WILL HELP YOU BE GREAT” songs are just not being written that well and they are not being written by people who seem to audibly care. “I WILL HELP YOU BE GREAT” songs are the better type as at least they remain dull as opposed to actively punchable. This does not mean these songs are good though; it merely means that they are not as bad as they could be. Ultimately the reason why I took a break from writing this blog was the frequent sense that I was trying harder than the song writers. This is one of the songs that stopped me writing.

(Cue people in the comments: “And you should have continued not writing!”)

Rapid Reviews 07/06/16

So after spending a long time setting the blog’s aesthetic standards in stone and despairing at the ruination of British society, let’s relax for a bit and release some residual steam on a few easy targets. We can return to things like nuanced analysis (?) next post. Let’s go!



Tears” – Clean Bandit feat. Louisa Johnson

91

The problem with Clean Bandit is that they’re only as good as their collaborators allow them to be. Pair them with people like Sean Bass and Alex Newell and they shine: the singers have the technical capabilities to match the music, and thus free Clean Bandit to really go for it with their musical compositions. Pair them Jess Glynne though and they completely fall apart: Glynne is not capable of matching what they’re doing and so their songs end up disappointingly disjointed.

That problem rears it’s ugly head here: Clean Bandit and Louisa Johnson just don’t work well together. Clean Bandit are known for their classically influenced, precise and multi-layered instrumentals: there’s a lot going on in Clean Bandit’s music and it’s always very tightly controlled. Meanwhile Louisa Johnson is an X-Factor winner and so comes from the school of singing whereby she injects as many syllables into each line as possible, resulting in an overly fussy mess. When you’ve got two people in the same song whose sounds are this busy though, one is going to be naturally drowned out by the other. Unfortunately Louisa Johnson is allowed to take control, filling the song with empty vocal gymnastics while leaving Clean Bandit with very little space to do anything interesting musically. The result, again, is something which is disappointingly disjointed and uneven. Even worse than that, with no space for anything interesting musically, the song just sounds bland. It’s the least interesting Clean Bandit song by a long chalk.

Clean Bandit are just too easily dominated by their guest artists, which is a shame because I’m still to hear a guest artist who isn’t entirely outclassed by them. I just want them to produce an entirely instrumental album, though I suppose that won’t happen while they’re still trying to get in the charts.



Faded” – Alan Walker feat. Iselin Solheim

92

This could’ve been interesting, maybe: the lyrics at least have some ideas in them, and they’re not bad ones at that. Sure, “sun and water metaphors being used to describe a relationship” has been the default mode of a lot of pop music recently, but this song twists them by having the boyfriend be the narrator’s “shadow” who is linked to the ocean and blocks her from the sun, subverting the traditional way that these metaphors work. Unfortunately, it’s still not that interesting. Even if it inverts the metaphors, it’s still using the same images as a lot of bog-standard pop at the moment. And, again, the music is just bland: sparce and empty.

I have tried to listen to this song in the same way I listen to Are You With Me – as an atmospheric track that’s meant to sound like pop but fundamentally isn’t – but the subtexts of the lyrics just aren’t there to support this mode of listening. Fundamentally, the song is meant to work as a cathartic release and it details a standard love narrative: it’s 100% pop music on auto pilot, draped in imagery that’s an inversion of the usual so as to look vaguely interesting. It’s like Deadpool or The Fault in Our Stars: narratives which are trying to look like radical deconstructions of their genre but which are ultimately just standard examples of their genre with louder witty asides. There might be something in it, somewhere, but actually finding it feels pointless.



I Know What You Did Last Summer” – Shawn Mendes feat. Camila Cabello

93

Shawn Mendes’ girlfriend cheated on him once, they stayed together, but now she’s acting shady again and he’s demanding to know where she’s been, which means the relationship isn’t working and the two should break up. Relationships are about trust; two people can stay together after one cheats on the other but only if trust is regained. Mendes doesn’t trust his partner, is now getting overly aggressive towards her and, as such, they should break up. He’s a whiny demanding arse, she’s self-involved, they don’t seem to have any actual reasons to stay together, yet neither actually reach the obvious conclusion at hand. Instead, we two unlikable people shouting at each other in circles to cover the fact that neither have actually arrived at the most obvious conclusion yet: they should break up.



Love, Hope and Misery” – Jake Bugg

94

Jake Bugg is an indie rocker who so obviously wants to be the Libertines, it’s ridiculous. In that form though, he’s at least bearable: wannabe rock stars are omnipresent in the indie rock scene, they just come with the territory. But now the bad boy’s going to show his softer side, and my god is it terrible.

Jake Bugg’s vocal styles for this song combines the nasal tone of Passenger with the vapid whinginess of Shawn Mendes, resulting in a performance which feels like being stabbed in the ear with an ice pick. The orchestral music sounds like it’s been ripped from a low budget 1970’s easy listening record, and the lyrics tick off every Post-Club cliche it’s possible to check off, minus the “actually be good” box. It’s unlistenable. A genuinely terrible song.



Work From Home” – Fifth Harmony feat. Ty Dolla $ign

95

For the longest time, I was convinced that this song was Rihanna’s Work. Then I actually watched the music video for Work and found that I was actually listening to something completely different. Also, I was listening to something infinitely better.

Work From Home is nigh-on indefensible. A woman is sending sexts to her partner while he’s at work while complaining about how his work stops him from being able to constantly have sex with her; still she resigns herself to it because he does have to work and, after all, he is “the boss at home”. Meanwhile the husband (as played by Ty Dolla $ign, the man with the worst rap name I’ve ever seen) spends his time talking about how much his wife better be constantly making herself look sexy for him and “putting overtime on [her] body”.

See what’s happening here? The man’s duty is to go off and work, making the money and providing a life for his family back at home. In return, the woman’s duty is to stay at home, comply to her husband’s wishes and make herself sexually available whenever he might want it.

How the fuck is something this sexist acceptable in this day and age? I mean, wow. Fucking wow. Do I even have to go on? When we live in a world with Little Mix, why could we ever need Fifth Harmony? Fuck this song; fuck it.



Just Like Fire” – P!nk

96

Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass was a surprisingly decent film, seeming to understand Tim Burton’s version of Wonderland much better than Tim Burton ever did and retroactively fixing a lot of the problems I had with the first movie. (Yeah, I think Deadpool and The Fault in our Stars are overrated and like the second Alice in Wonderland film. Suck it.) There’s one thing that’s horrendously jarring though: that being when the film awkwardly slams into the end credits and it’s tie-in song Just Like Fire starts playing. That song just does not fit what went before it.

Part of this is just a matter of context. Alice in Wonderland is set in the Victorian era and in a surreal self-contained fantasy land: though passing comment on the modern world, it’s fundamentally disconnected from it. As such, to end the film with a top 40 hit from a famous post-2000 singer is like ending The Book Thief with Skillrex track: the song just fundamentally doesn’t belong in the film it’s in.

The song barely fits with the film thematically either. Both are fundamentally feminist texts which feature female characters refusing to be defined by their opponents – whether that’s Alice refusing to sign a man’s business contract which would make her an intern or P!nk fighting against whoever she’s fighting against – but other than that, they’re polar opposites. This can be most obviously seen in how they deal with the theme of madness. In the film, Alice is fundamentally not insane; it’s just that the world treats her as such because it looks at a woman going above her station and inherently sees something wrong with it. Meanwhile P!nk is busy claiming that she’s unbeatable because she’s resolutely insane and no-one can touch her. The two messages are completely separated; they’re saying two different things.

And where did the fire metaphor come from? There’s only one fire in the entirety of the original film: that being the fire which killed the Mad Hatter’s family. So is that what P!nk is: a dangerous fire so out of control that she keeps causing distress and death to her friends and family? That doesn’t work at all. I could go on.

The result is a tie-in song to a movie that the writer has obviously not watched. In a post-Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack world, this is just not acceptable. The fire metaphor is cliche, the music and lyrics are P!nk on auto-pilot, and the song is completely disconnected from it’s source material. No-one cared at any point: once again, it’s blatantly a paycheck mascarading as a song. It’s Faded but stuck at the end of a movie.



Stitches” – Shawn Mendes

97

Just to reiterate (again), this is everything that’s wrong with pop music. Genuinely awful.

Pop Song Review: “One Call Away” by Charlie Puth

Previously on this blog: Charlie Puth and Meghan Trainor released Marvin Gaye. I did not like it. Nor had I liked anything released by either artist before then.

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86

So Charlie Puth is back at the piano and singing another love song which is basically Rachael Platten’s Stand By You but done by a guy. You see, Puth loves someone and they’re going through a hard time but it’ll be ok because he’s there and is available to talk if they need it. He’ll be their rock; he’ll be their strength; he’ll be so strong that “Superman has nothing on him”.

Already a discrepancy has presented itself, and it’s the same one as Rachael Platten’s song: this is a slow piano ballad sung by a soppy person about how badass and powerful they are; it’s another song about strength which sounds inherently weak. First Puth’s song of mourning was devoid of sadness; then his song about sex was devoid of sexiness; now his song of strength is devoid of strength. At this point, the only constant part of Puth’s aesthetic seems to be his inability to produce work which reflects its subject matter; being unable to write tone correctly is his defining attribute.

Yet… I really like this song.

Maybe it isn’t likable as much as it’s relatable. The greatest love I never had was with a woman who moved out of the area just after we started getting close but just before we could get together. She moved away for a new job but found that that job was much tougher than she was expecting and that making new friends in the area was almost impossible. Meanwhile I was stuck in my normal life, only now I was in it without her and it seemed so much emptier than before. We both struggled. Luckily for us, we had telephones. She should ring up and complain about her job and I would sit back and listen to her. We’d laugh, moan, talk about what was on TV. She got someone to fall back on; I got a few more hours with one of the few people I cared about. It was exactly what both of us needed. So a song about a man wanting to be someone’s emotional rock by talking to them over the phone: yeah, I feel that. One Call Away could be considered old-fashioned and trite, but I feel it more than I have any song since Carly Rae Jepsen’s I Really Love You and Lunchmoney Lewis’ Bills.

The old-fashionedness of the song isn’t exactly a negative either. This song shares a lot of its DNA with the soft pop songs of Phil Collins and Lionel Richie, etc, whose music is similarly “weak” but undoubtedly romantic. And the main way these types of songs work is by being entirely unconcerned with being artistic or respectable*. I’ve complained about this before but most artists nowadays are trying way too hard for their work to be respectable with their attempts serving only to ruin the material they have. Shawn Mendes wants to sell the pain he’s in so much that he’ll happily reach for any metaphor he can, resulting a clichéd 10-car pile-up of uninspired dreck; while Ed Sheeran wants us to feel his love so much that he ends up trampling all over his song with the grace of an elephant, turning what are supposed to be off-the-cuff remarks into a series of belaboured groans; and even Zayn’s Pillow Talk, a song I pretty much like, suffers from Zayn wanting it to feel like a reinvention of the wheel when in reality it’s little more than a wheel with the word “WHEEL” written on it. Phil Collins doesn’t care though. He expresses himself how he deems fit, nevermind whether the result is respectable, zeitgeisty or not. The result is that his songs sound honest; even his crap ones (and he has a lot of them) sound fundamentally like him. This gives his work a sense of intimacy and thus a genuine sense of romance; something which is hard to achieve for artists whose works are overly workshopped and masterminded for mass appeal. When I listen to Mendes or Sheeran, I can only feel the mechanics which underlie the song’s attempts to elicit emotion; when I listen to Phil Collins, I only hear the emotion. It’s the same when I listen to One Call Away. The song’s not trying to sound cool; it’s not trying to sound bigger than it is; it’s not trying to be clever. It just is what it is. It’s honest. It’s simple. I’m able to ignore the construction of this song and just feel it because the emotion feels actually genuine.

It also helps that the song actually plays to Puth’s image. Too many people in the pop world are trying to over-reach themselves, resulting in a pop landscape of people constantly falling short of their own standards. You can see this in Puth’s last song, Marvin Gaye, which ultimately asks him, a nerdy white boy, to sell himself as a credible sex symbol comparable to one of the greatest sexual icons there’s ever been. Meanwhile See You Again asks him to deeply mourn someone he’s obviously never met before. Both just obviously ask for too much; he can’t do either. One Call Away, though, features Charlie Puth, a nerdy white boy, sitting around on the phone and trying to compare himself to the comic book character Superman. It sounds like him in a way his previous songs don’t.

It’s even internally consistent. My main complaint about Stand By Me is that Rachael Platten tries to portray herself as someone who can fight against her enemies and protect someone else from harm; this doesn’t work though because she doesn’t sound like she could fight anything. Charlie Puth isn’t fighting anyone though; the fight’s already happened and Puth’s lover has lost. Charlie’s role is thus entirely supportive here; he doesn’t sound strong but he doesn’t need to because his strength doesn’t come from his resilience and muscles. Indeed, that’s the whole point of this song to me: what we’re told are weak characteristics for a man to have are actually the strongest and most useful attributes he has, hence the “Superman” line which might sound corny (because it is) but which says some really great things gender-identity-wise. The character in this song just works; he feels like a real person. More than that, he feels like the type of person I’d like to be. Charlie Puth isn’t just likable in this song; he’s a genuine male role model.

Everything just works for me here without any of the usual mistakes that every other pop song seems willing to make. For one song, me and Puth are entirely in sync. It took him a few attempts but he’s finally released a love song which I actually find romantic. I know: the sky is falling; cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria; etc. The next thing you’ll tell me, Meghan Trainor’s released a song I really like.

Well, about that…

87

* Phil Collins’ weak and sappy songs were considered weak and sappy, even when they were in the charts.

Rapid Reviews 20/04/16: Jess Glynne, Adele, Coldplay and More

There’s a lot of songs floating around at the moment. As such, let’s take some time away from the No. 1’s and spend a few minutes discussing the lower end of the charts, plus some older hits I haven’t been able to get around to yet:

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Eyes Shut” – Years and Years

79

Did you know that Years and Years had a second hit single? I didn’t. This wasn’t because I hadn’t heard the single: no, it turns out that I’ve probably listened to it at least once a day for months now. It’s just that Years and Years have so little personality that I can hear their latest song every day for ages and still not recognise it as a Years and Years track until I’m told that it’s them.

It also doesn’t help that the lyrics are crap.

“Nothing’s going to hurt me with my eyes shut / I can see through them, I can see through them.”

No you can’t; your eyes are shut. You can’t see anything. Or maybe the “them” that the narrator can see through aren’t his eyelids but are the people trying to hurt him; in which case, why do you need to close your eyes? If you can’t see them anyway, why do you have to stop yourself from seeing them? Perhaps an overly literal critique but one that summarises my general problem with the song as a whole: the basic message is “I’m going to not allow anything to hurt me by pretending that it’s not hurting me” which just doesn’t work as an methodology. It’s championing repression when repression is highly psychologically unhealthy. This, combined with the song’s dour sound and the singer’s defeated delivery, results in another song that’s flawed in the exact same way as OMI’s Cheerleader: it sounds too sad to be triumphant, yet it’s lyrics are too triumphant to be sad. Who’s ever going to need it? It a waste of time.

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Desire” – Years & Years

80

This song is fantastic though: real meaty instrumentation, lyrics which work (hooray!) and everything else you could ever want from a pop song. Years & Years’ lack of personality is still an issue – I could write a list of bands that this song sounds like and Years & Years would not feature on it – but it’s the first Years & Years song that I actively like and the first one that I can actually understand the appeal of. I get why this got big.

Indeed, I actually found myself being rather impressed when I saw Years & Years perform this song on The Voice. They looked insane; they have a real distinct visual presence. Looking on their Facebook page, they also seem to have a very good brand presence which is based on a solid, definable pro-LGBT ideology. Where the hell is this in their actual music though? If they sounded like they looked, I would adore this band. Instead they’re currently on the pile of Artists-Wasting-Their-Good-Ideas-On-Bland-Shit.

They do have Desire though and that counts heavily in their favor.

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Fast Car” – Jonas Blue feat. Dakota

81

Let me be upfront: Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car is one of the greatest songs ever written. Tracy Chapman discusses living in extreme poverty and having to look after her terminally ill father. Mixed in with this story is the image of Tracey getting into a fast car and running away towards a better, classier, more filmic life. And so the song becomes a battle between Tracey’s want to take care of her father, her want for a better life, and the institutional poverty which makes both wants impossible to fulfil. It’s a dour, crackly song which takes the worries and hardships of being black, poor and depressed in America and expresses them as a form of relief. In short, it’s a blues song. The crackly guitar, the defeated vocals: it all fits. It’s one of the best blues songs ever written. More than that, this song would not work as well if it was anything but a blues song. Any other version of it just doesn’t make as much sense.

You can see where I’m going with this.

Who the hell made a bloody techno version of Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car? The emotionless vocals, the hollow beat, the spotless production: when I listen to this song, I just hear a band who fundamentally don’t get the thing they’re covering. For a cover to be worthwhile to me, it either needs to do fascinating things with the source material or it needs to improve on the song it’s covering. This does neither. When we have the original, why listen to this?

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Ain’t Got Far to Go” – Jess Glynne

82

I like this one. Yeah, you heard me: I like a Jess Glynne song. Insert the main riff from Handel’s Hallelujah here:

What I like about it is the music which is surprisingly complicated and erratic, composed of a lot of separate elements which interweave in and out of each other with a surprising intricacy. There’s one bit near the middle which constantly switches between violins, Jess Glynne, some men chanting and pure silence; each switch coming just before the listener thinks it will and switching to the one thing they didn’t think it would. There’s a playfulness here; someone thought about how the listener would respond to the piece and then started messing with their expectations. In short, at one point someone actually put effort into this. There’s a definitive authorial voice here, and that voice is a cheeky one that’s willing to challenge its audience. I just appreciate being able to listen to a Jess Glynne song where someone audibly cared at one point. Someone cared!

Unfortunately, you still have to put up with Jess Glynne who provides possibly the worst performance of her career here. Even in her worst songs, you have to admit that Glynne has a great singing voice: idiosyncratic, bold and capable of verbal gymnastics when required. Her only problem is that sometimes she can push the gymnastics too far, resulting in the “Knowwiturlsdfhsdfdfgndfiarr” line from Rather Be and the entirety of this. She just flicks from one stunted utterance to another here, any semblances of actual movement, rhythm or intent getting trampled under her jerky, unpleasant, lackluster groans.

If you listen past Jess Glynne though (and you usually have to in Jess Glynne songs), there is something of actual worth here. After her singles in 2015, this is a definitive step up.

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“Army” – Ellie Goulding

83

Meanwhile, here’s an Ellie Goulding song that I don’t like at all. Usually when I’m writing about Ellie Goulding’s work, I’m talking about how needlessly clever it is or am having to go really in depth into the basics of humanity just to justify my critique of it. At her best, Goulding produces some of the most controlled, interesting, lush work out there. Yet Army is just… boring. The music is simplistic and the message cliche. More than that, Goulding uses her beautiful, technically proficient voice to perform to a central riff which is just her splitting the syllables of “Army” apart and elongating them. It’s like she didn’t really care.

Christ, I like a Jess Glynne song because someone cared about it’s composition, and don’t like an Ellie Goulding latest song because no-one seems to care. What’s wrong with the world right now? I’m expecting everyone to start wearing goatees and eye patches.

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When We Were Young” – Adele

84

In my review of Hello, I mentioned that I wasn’t particularly a fan of the song but noted how I didn’t have any definitive reasons for not liking it. I think my reasons are starting to coalesce though. As mentioned previously, I’m increasingly becoming frustrated at the Post-Club era’s tendency to be overly respectable. With her tasteful piano, operatic voice and classical style, Adele now represents “respectable” pop probably more than any other artist right now. Indeed, in retrospect, that seems to be the point of my Hello review: the entire thing is a critique of the idea of “respectable pop”, using a highly respectable song to frame my critique with. I thought that post were composed entirely of sidebars to my thoughts on the song but it turns out they’re pretty much the entire reason it doesn’t speak to me.

When We Were Young does speak to me though. Adele’s description of past relationship being “just like a movie” or “just like a song” is a wonderfully succinct description of nostalgia which satisfies both the postmodernist and the romantic in me. Adele also does a wonderful performance here: I always prefer bittersweet songs to straight sad ones and Adele hits just the right balance (as opposed to Hello with is pure misery and self-pity). If there was ever going to be an Adele song that I’d like, it’d be this one. And I like it, a lot.

What is it with Adele’s current trend of naming her songs after older ones though: first she nicked the name from a Lionel Richie song and now she’s going after The Killers. Personally, I’m looking forward to her next hit: a sweet ballad of lost love and regret, “X Gon Give It To Ya”.

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Hymn for the Weekend” – Coldplay

85

I react to songs from Coldplay’s latest album the same way I react to kitchen roll and drywall. None of them make me feel anything. I have so little a reaction to them, it almost makes me angry. Their singles are pure radio Polyfilla: they’re just there to take up space.

Hymn for the Weekend is probably the worst example. It’s a drink-drugs-and-sex club song written to sound like a Coldplay single, which of course is a joke, by which I mean that literally: “I thought I’d like to have a song called ‘Drinks on Me’ where you sit on the side of a club and buy everyone drinks because you’re so fucking cool,” Chris Martin’s said. “I was chuckling about that, when this melody came, ‘drinks on me, drinks on me’, then the rest of the song came out.” The disjunction between the debauchery of the lyrics and the utter breezy cleaniness of Coldplay’s sound is thus purposely meant to elicit laughter. You’re not supposed to be able to take it seriously; Chris Martin couldn’t. The only problem is that it sounds like a Coldplay song, by which I meant that it doesn’t sound like it’s supposed to be funny. Indeed, the rest of the band told Martin to replace the words “Drinks on me” to “Drink from me” purely to make it fit in better with the rest of Coldplay’s discography. Doing that basically robbed the song of it’s point though. It’s now a joke song without a joke. It’s hollow.

It’s not like “Drinks on Me” is even that insane a lyric; if anything, it’s just really banal. “I’m feeling drunk and high” is literally the most basic sentence you could use to describe being drunk and high; even the most serious of club songs have more jokes than this. The song is just played too straight for it to be funny; the music needed to sound as over-exaggeratedly bland as possible and the lyrics needed to be absolute batshit. Neither are either, and so the joke just doesn’t work.

It also doesn’t help that “intelligent, underwritten versions of dance songs” is an actual trend at the moment which other acts are playing entirely seriously. Whether it’s Bastille’s Of the Night or Sigala’s Easy Love, this type of music is all over the radio. So there’s not even a sense of novelty to it.

It’s not extreme enough to be funny, it’s not sincere enough to be a Coldplay song, it’s not danceable enough to be a club song: it just doesn’t work. There are series of reactions that it seeks to elicit and it fails at eliciting any of them. I literally do not know why people like it.

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Stitches” – Shawn Mendes

77

I just want to reiterate that this song is total fucking garbage.

A No. 1 Review – “Stitches” by Shawn Mendes

77

After a solid month of Bieber chart domination, we finally have a brand new UK No 1 and the first new No. 1 of 2016. Shame it’s bloody awful.

What’s it about? Well, Shawn Mendes’ girlfriend has broken up with him and he’s not dealing with it well. You see, life is difficult and Mendes’ girlfriend was the rock that let him deal with it. But, in his words, “now I’m without your kisses / I’ll be needing stitches”. He’s now dreading the upcoming period where he gets over her and is somewhat pessimistic about the future.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem too bad. Once again, we have a male protagonist who’s insecure, lonely and wanting to communicate that fact, something which has become a welcome trend lately. It’s also nice to have a man who isn’t going to try to keep the relationship going despite his partner’s wishes; his girlfriend has put her foot down and he’s respecting her autonomy, whether it hurts him or not. These are all good things.

But there are five massive problems that make me detest this thing:

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Problem 1: No-one producing the song cared about it at any point.

This will become more obvious the further we go.

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Problem 2: “Kisses” and “stitches” don’t even rhyme.

This doesn’t seem that bad at first but it’s the song’s main hook and they couldn’t even be arsed to get that right. Even if rest of the lyrics were skintight (which they’re not), that line would be enough for me to consider this a failure almost immediately. They just didn’t care.

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Problem 3: The story’s communicated to us entirely in cliches (all of which have already been used to much greater effect in other songs).

Your words cut deeper than a knife.” “I need someone to breathe me back to life.” “Got a feeling that I’m going under.” “You watch me bleed until I don’t breathe.” “Like a moth drawn to a flame.” “Your bitter cold heart.” “I’m left seeing red on my own.

This can barely be considered Mendes’ song: there’s no originality or depth on display at all. Of course, this shows just how deeply Shawn Mendes truly actually feels about his relationship: i.e. he barely feels anything about it at all. Why even write this song if you can’t be bothered to use more than the most basic sentiments? It wasn’t written for emotional release, it was the basis for a paycheck. They just didn’t care.

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Problem 4: The cliches are combined in ways that don’t even make sense.

“You watch me bleed until I can’t breathe.” What do bleeding and breathing have to do with each other? If you bleed enough, your organs will stop functioning and that means you’ll be unable to breathe – yes – but that’s an awful lot of dominoes that the line’s skipped just so it doesn’t have to say “You watch me bleed until I die.” But what’s wrong with the line “You watch me bleed until I die”? It’s not like every other line is a cryptic conundrum waiting to be solved; it’s not like every other line isn’t depressingly banal and self-explanatory. And if you’re going to pick one line to not do the obvious in, why pick a random line halfway through a verse and why would you still not actually manage to write it well? Even when they’re trying to raise the bar, they’re trying to do it as lazily as possible. They just didn’t care.

“Just like a moth drawn to a flame / […] Your bitter heart cold to the touch.” So is she “a flame” or “cold to the touch”? First she’s hot, then she’s cold; she’s yes, then she’s no; she’s up, then she’s down; she’s an inconsistently sketched blank space who I have to assume was inspired by no-one and doesn’t actually exist at all. They just didn’t care. And while we’re on this lyric:

“Just like a moth drawn to a flame / Oh, you lured me in.” So the first line is describing the situation from Mendes’ perspective, while the second describes it from the girlfriend’s. Yet these two lines are linked together and structured so that it sounds like it’s talking exclusively about the girlfriend: she lured him in the same way that a moth is drawn to a flame, something which doesn’t make any bloody sense at all.  All they needed to do was add something in the first line which directly tied it to Mendes: “I was a moth drawn to a flame / Oh, you lured me in”. Bam: lyric fixed. I changed two words. They just didn’t care.

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Problem 5: The main character is an unlikable arse.

Part of this is the song’s lyrics, part of it is the song’s sound. Shawn Mendes’ nasal voice just makes him sound whiny, particularly given the neediness of the lyrics. I just can’t feel sympathy for him. He’s the one who’s pinned all of his personal defects on his partner; he’s the one who used her as a battering ram against the fact that existence is hard. While certainly the blame of the relationship’s failure doesn’t entirely rest on him, he also can’t be said to be entirely without blame: he wanted more than she was willing to give and neither were willing to compromise, making things fall apart. That’s pretty much every relationship breakup in a nutshell. But does the song show anywhere near that amount of balance? Of course not. “You watch me bleed ‘til I can’t breathe […] You lured me in [and have a] bitter heat cold to the touch”. He’s just externalising his grief now: “How dare you be so attractive that I unsustainably pinned my entire personality onto you! How dare you show up all my insecurities and leave me when they become too much! This is all your fault! The relationship was entirely about my needs! None of this is my fault! Me! Me! Me! Me!” Shut up, you twat. At least when Adele writes this type of song, she has the humility to admit that some of the blame has to be carried by her. When Taylor Swift writes this type of song, she has a sense of wit. This is just the vapid whinging of a hack without an ounce of self-awareness. It is hateable. They just didn’t care.

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So it’s a song about an unlikable arse which doesn’t even have the dignity to put effort into his vindictive sneering. This song has many of the tropes of the Post-Club Age of Pop but these tropes have been used without care or attention. Stupid hacks who want to get rich on the barest of effort aren’t going to suddenly flee the pop world; as such, for every genuinely artistic song we get which is written with purpose and skill, we’re also going to get 50 songs which try to sound like it but fail. This is one of the 50: a song that gets most of the best trends currently creeping into pop but proceeds to suck at fulfilling any of them.

They just didn’t care, and that’s the worst crime of all.