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:
“Eyes Shut” – Years and Years
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.
“Desire” – Years & Years
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.
“Fast Car” – Jonas Blue feat. Dakota
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?
“Ain’t Got Far to Go” – Jess Glynne
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.
“Army” – Ellie Goulding
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.
“When We Were Young” – Adele
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”.
“Hymn for the Weekend” – Coldplay
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.
“Stitches” – Shawn Mendes
I just want to reiterate that this song is total fucking garbage.