A No. 1 Review – “Symphony” by Clean Bandit feat. Zara Larsson

I’m way behind on my attempt to review every UK No. 1 of this year. Let’s pretend this song is still immediately relevant to the charts, yeah?


I’ve historically been a bit conflicted with Clean Bandit. They’re certainly the best instrumentalists working in mainstream pop at the moment; their songs sound sublime and are musically so far ahead of their contemporaries that it’s almost embarrassing.

The issue is that they keep collaborating with their contemporaries despite them never quite seeming to gel. Place one of Bandit’s precise, complicated instrumentals next to an over-singer like Louisa Johnson and you get a track with no room to breathe, forcing their less ostentatious sound into the background and allowing the song to be dominated by it’s worst element. Similarly, place it next to a wholly uncomplicated artist like Jess Glynne and you get music which is entirely unsupported by its lyrics, resulting in something unsatifyingly meaningless. Too far to either end of the spectrum and you get stuff that doesn’t work: there’s a specific vocal style that serves Clean Bandit well, but it’s so percise that no-one quite seems to know what it is yet.

They’re getting better though. You’d think that Rockabye, the song they did with Anne-Marie and Sean Paul, would end up criminally overloaded given that it features not one but two guest artists, yet it’s actually quite controlled. The thing that makes it work is that there’s an in-song reason for one performer to overpower the rest. The entire track is about the hard work but ultimate self-sufficiency of Anne-Marie’s single mother character, providing a surprisingly deep portrait of how single mothers need more support but are still strong on their own. To reflect this, every single element of the song other than Anne-Marie takes a supportive role to her vocals, from Sean Paul making singular utterances which highlight the important parts of Anne-Marie’s story to music which largely keeps itself out of the way unless needed. Everyone’s working together to highlight and bolster one element.

The fact that this is rare for a Clean Bandit song says something about the band which I haven’t quite said yet. Because I usually prefer the instrumentation to the lyrics in any Clean Bandit song, I have a tendency to argue that Clean Bandit is a great bunch of musicians being underserved by guest artists who don’t get what they’re doing. This perspective implies that Clean Bandit don’t have any control over their guest artists though, which is almost definitely wrong: while I don’t know exactly how they write their tracks, I doubt that they just record the music, send it to the record label and then leave it to everyone else to add some vocals on top of it. Which means that if Clean Bandit have a major flaw, it’s that they don’t write their intricate music to play to the strengths of their collaborators. If you’re going to keep using guest vocalists, you might as well start adjusting your sound for each one. Clean Bandit have never really done this, and so are as much to blame for their songs never quite coalescing as everyone else.

Meanwhile, Rockabye has everyone on the same page and working together to produce a singular effect, everyone being given well-defined roles which feed into the song’s central point. This is what truly separates Rockabye from the rest of Clean Bandit’s discography: the feeling that the music and the vocals are actually working with and off each other as opposed to being merely played over each other in the final dub.

And while Symphony – Clean Bandit’s latest No. 1 recorded with Zara Larsson – never quite reaches the heights of Rockabye, the interplay between Clean Bandit and Zara Larsson is there, working off each other to produce some really quite interesting effects and some very solid storytelling.

The song is about a lonely person who’s developed a crush on someone, the song serving to express their desire to date. It starts off by setting the scene: the narrator talks about how she was tired of “solo singing on [her] own” and talks about how her crush helped to imagine an unlonely life. This is communicated through a very sparce opening where the only instruments are a piano playing single notes in a very separated plinky-plonk fashion, over which is laid the narrator’s voice and an awful lot of echo, making it feel like the narrator is singing to herself in a large, empty room. Then the pre-chorus kicks in and the lyrics move to present tense. The single notes become chords which speed and build up, leading to a sense of forward momentum. This is where the singer and her crush come together, where everything fits into one…

Except it’s not. The music drops out of the chorus and we’re left with the singer largely singing to herself while the piano music flits between the pauses. And so a tension is created: the singer and her crush haven’t got together. And you feel that tension: the music built you up and has left you hanging. You feel in limbo. An effect is made, and it’s a palpable one.

With this framework, the song has now set up what the rest of it has to do: keep building up the instrumental passages until they eventually reach a crescendo, resolving the songs tensions and allowing its characters to finally come together. And so it starts doing that, introducing new instruments to the mix constantly and using the ebbs-and-flows created by it’s verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure to maintain its sense of tension while constantly moving towards an increasingly inevitable finale. While the finale feels inevitable though, it never feels certain. The first musical fake-out has taught us that the crescendo promised by the song is not guaranteed. And of course, despite the ending being inevitable, the song never actually features the singer and her crush getting together. As such, we’re left with a tumultuous snapshot of a relationship-to-be, preserved in amber and carrying all the nerves, joys and fears that developing a new crush tends to bring. It’s effective and beautiful; compare it to the relatively aimless Rather Be and you’ll see that Clean Bandit’s abilities as storytellers have improved greatly.

And the real joy of it is the way that the lyrics use a symphony metaphor in which the singer’s “solo-singing” merges with her crushes melodies and tunes in order to form a full symphony, this being exactly what the music does. The music explains the lyrics and the lyrics explain the music: everything fits and feeds into each other. There’s no difference between vocals, instruments and melody here, they all fit together into one text.

This might seem like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill – a song has matching music and lyrics, big whoop – but a lot of pop music nowadays shows nothing even close to the fundamentals being displayed here. As I’ve said before, despite me being a very harsh critic of modern pop music, it’s really has to do very little for me to like it. In a world where something as confused as One Dance can be No. 1 for 15 weeks and Ed Sheeran is somehow an apparently acceptable songwriter, a song as proficient as this is frankly exemplary.

Clean Bandit have always tried very hard to be as good as they can and now their efforts are finally playing dues, fulfilling at least some of the potential evident in their earlier works. It’s not quite Rockabye but that’s mostly because using some interesting narrative structures to liven up a bog-standard love song isn’t as half as interesting as using interesting narrative structures to illuminate a very specific tale of single-motherhood in the modern age. What it is though is very good. As their worst, Clean Bandit are one of the most interesting bands going; based on the strengths of these two songs, you could plausibly argue that Clean Bandit are currently the best pop groups in the charts right now.


A No. 1 Review – “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran

(or: My Attempt at a Definitive “Ed Sheeran Sucks” Post, Written in the Hopes of Never Having to Discuss Him Again)


Ed Sheeran is not a good artist. He is a promising artist who’s capable of producing good work, but he is not – I repeat, not – a good artist in general.

The main issue is that Ed Sheeran is fundamentally trying to be two people at the same time. One is an exaggerated novelty act where a ginger nerd endearingly fails to be a hip-hop star; the other is a smooth and romantic acoustic artist delivering meaningfully sensitive platitudes to people who mean a lot to him. This is a difficult balancing act to manage.

I mean, you can see why it’s become popular: the two guaranteed sellers in the past few years have been R’n’B/hip-hop dance tracks and Post-Club sensitive men playing acoustic ballads. By combining examples of both styles into individual albums – and by successfully craving a niche in both genres through a) not looking like the average person who produces that type of music and b) being the one person in each genre who also writes the other thing – Sheeran has been able to consolidate the audiences of the two biggest selling genres of his time into one, the result being the one artist at the moment capable of such mammoth selling achievements as getting an entire album in the UK Top 20 or having nine songs in the UK Top 10 simultaneously.

The problem with this (and I don’t quite believe that I can so directly compare Meghan Trainor to Ed Sheeran here) is that this act requires Sheeran to consolidate a lot of artistic impulses into one vision when they’re pretty much constantly fighting against each other. Two extra problems come with Sheeran’s obvious desire to be a consummate entertainer and his increasingly obvious sense of hubris, both of which frequently undermine work which is already conflicted to begin with. And this is ignoring the fact that “ginger nerd endearingly failing to do hip-hop” is already a highly complicated act that someone could sustain an entire career on alone. The result is an artist with a highly successful discography of messy songs that never quite work.

Let’s take some case studies:

The A Team


This is a look at the life of a homeless woman desperately trying to stay alive. And in some ways it’s admirable, highlighting the plight of a forgotten underclass and providing its character with a quiet dignity in face of the indignities she frequently has to endure. In many ways, it’s our generation’s version of Phil Collins’ Another Day In Paradise. Except it isn’t.

Phil Collins details the plight of a homeless woman living in poverty, focusing on images of her trying to get help and being ignored by people before coupling this with a chorus that directly links both himself and the audience to the people ignoring her: ‘Oh, think twice, cause it’s another day for you and me in Paradise’. Phil Collins’ lyrics here are an attack at both himself and the audience for ignoring people like this woman; it’s a call for people to be better, be more sympathetic, and to take more affirmative action to help those who need it.

Ed Sheeran does not do this. Instead, he links the woman in question to a very romantic and softly-spoken lexis in which the image of her dying in the winter sleet becomes ‘an angel […] covered in white’. More than this, he keeps mentioning people outside of the narrative, looking into it: he talks about how ‘we’re just under the upper hand’ and how ‘they say she’s in the class A team’. The whole song becomes framed through various collectives looking in on the woman and making aesthetic judgments on her behalf. Lost in this is the idea of listening to the woman, engaging with her situation or helping it; instead, we’re invited to sit on the sidelines of her life and just watch her suffer. More than this, we’re invited to take aesthetic delight in the beautiful image of a homeless prostitute dying in the street. The song is so far away from a critique of audience passivity that it almost becomes an endorsement of it, inviting us to engage purely aesthetically with the life of a poor homeless woman almost entirely to gain the self-satisfaction of empathy and meaning. The woman gets written out of her own story and we are invited to gain intellectual and moral satisfaction out of watching her die, because her death is so beautiful man, it’s so beautiful.

This comes largely out of the genre that the song belongs to: it’s an acoustic ballad, of the type which Todd in the Shadows usually calls the White Guy With Acoustic Guitar genre. This genre is stereotypically linked to laziness, the usual implication being that the genre is full of talentless hacks who gravitate towards the style because a) it requires the least amount of practical set-up, b) it requires you to only know a few chords and be able to basically keep a tune, and c) it’s usually read as being a sensitive and mature art style, resulting in the musical genre which gets you the most indie points for the least amount of work. Too many artists use the iconography and sound of the acoustic guitar to signify “deep and meaningful music” when their actual composition and lyrics can’t do it on their own. You can see that right here: by writing a quiet acoustic ballad about a homeless woman, Sheeran thinks that he’s writing a meaningful expose on a life which too many people ignore. The issue is that that’s where he stops, resulting in something deeply problematic.

Then his boisterousness comes in. His desire to be perceived at least partly as a novelty act belies a willingness to be perceived as the class clown: the person who exaggerates how little they belong somewhere to justify it the eyes of others, doing so to ensure that the direct focus of everyone around remains on them. This in turn belies a general willingness to overplay his hand: it is not merely enough in an Ed Sheeran song to express a sentiment about something, he has to always make the statement which is big and broad enough to break the soul of anyone who listens. So the homeless woman he sings about isn’t just anyone who could live in the streets: she’s a ‘Class A’ homeless woman, and she’s on drugs, and she’s a prostitute, and she’s dead – but didn’t just die, she died in a snowstorm, and it was beautiful, and everyone saw it, and everyone agreed, it was tragic, and beautiful.

The issue with this is that the song quickly stops being about the woman’s suffering and becomes about how sad Sheeran can make that suffering look. This is what leads to the song being easily accused of egotism: this is more directly about Ed Sheeran feeling bad about a homeless woman than it is about the homeless woman. The experience of listening to this song thus becomes the simulation of sympathy: it’s not about empathizing with a dying homeless woman, it’s about looking like you’re the type of person who empathizes with dying homeless women, all because you then get the indie cred, a purged conscious and good sales, all without doing actually anything to help her.

So Sheeran adds a sense of over-importance to a vapid music genre in order to produce something that allows him and his listeners to pretend that they’re being sensitive at the expense of the song’s subject. It’s hollow, exploitative and morally bankrupt. Phil Collins is better than this.

Thinking Out Loud


Now, let’s move onto the big one. I’ve said multiple times that I consider Thinking Out Loud to be one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard, particularly in my post where I called it the worst song of 2014. That post has become quite infamous, to the point where I’ve had several Sheeran fans on Twitter tell their followers to spam my blog out of existence due to it. I can see why it’s gained this status. I used the “Worst Song of 2014” title to justify a more exaggerated tone than usual, allowing me to release some pent-up emotions which were ultimately more to do with the song’s disproportionate critical praise than the song itself. My line-by-line critiques of the song could be quiet petty too, and maybe the blowjob joke was a step too far. In short, I imagine that people who like the song would probably find my review of it to be unfair: to them, I was either not listening to it in the way the song intended or I was purposely over-exaggerating my critiques to gain political points. My defense though is that the song pretty much actively denies anyway of listening to it that isn’t overly petty.

The song details Sheeran and his girlfriend lying together (possibly under the light of a thousand stars) with Sheeran just saying… things. Tiny things, random things, meaningless things; all connected together because they sound romantic and refer to Sheeran’s girlfriend. It doesn’t actually matter what these statements say, it only matters what they express: the love and dedication that Sheeran has for his girlfriend. As such, my previous arguments that none of Sheeran’s statements make sense are indeed me missing the point. Within the song, it doesn’t matter whether the statements make any sense or are romantic at all, all that matters is that they appear romantic. In the same way that The A-Team is about the performance of sympathy, this is about the performance of love. Indeed, this song is a step-up on The A Team in that the lyrics actually realise that’s what they’re about and uses it in their favour.

This is even a song that would work well within the context of an acoustic ballad. It’s small, intimate, simplistic, doesn’t require well-written lyrics: it’s perfect. This song screams for a laid-back atmosphere where a man hazily and indistinctly lists a bricollage of vaguely love themed stuff for no reason other than it’s romantic. It’s a beautiful and crystalline sliver of an acoustic pop song.

But then comes Ed Sheeran, the consummate entertainer who needs everything he says to be a massive statement of intent. And he wrecks everything.

Sheeran’s performance is way too strained and tries way too hard. The worst moment comes near the end where he just blurts out the line PUTYOURHANDSINMYLOVINGARMS as if it’s genuinely hurting him. This is just the wrong decision for what the lyrics are trying to do. The whole point of the song is that it’s meant to be a small, quiet and intimate thing, capturing the image of two lovers alone at night, whispering in each other’s ears and talking about life. Yet what Sheeran is apparently doing in this line is shouting at his lover while writhing around on the ground. Imagine two people sat in a field at night, snuggling with each other and ildy talking about their emotions and futures. Now imagine two people sat in a field while one shouts “HUG ME! HUG ME!” at the other. It ruins the image.

And because Sheeran strains every line and because the music then has to be boistered to fit the performance, the lyrics have to suddenly start making sense. When you’ve got a song that goes out of its way to foreground it’s emotional content by over-enunciating every line and syllable, the words and sentences need to be able to support a lyric-focused mode of listening. But these lyrics can’t. Because they were never designed to support this type of listening in the first place. It doesn’t work.

And this returns us to our central problem. Here we have Ed Sheeran, the boisterous maker of definitive statements, singing a song written by Ed Sheeran, the ginger clown trying to be a pop star and charmingly failing. At no point does the song try to bridge the gap between these two personalities: it just throws them together into a song that ends up fighting between two contradictory personalities. Hell, it doesn’t even do that: Sheeran writes the song in one style, sings it in another, and then expects that the two are naturally going to work. The result is a track without a single functional element, not because any of them are inherently rotten but because no single element gets supported by any of the others.

Galway Girl


And now we move to the rare one: the Ed Sheeran song where I agree with the prevailing opinion. No-one likes this one. The record company begged Sheeran not to release it. Many reviews of it have been negative. I can name several celebrities who listened to the song to see if it was as bad as everyone said, only to go onto Twitter and confirm that yes, it was. Only three groups of people seem to like it: Ed Sheeran fans (who like everything he does); Galway Girls (who find the idea of there being a song about Galway to be a novelty); and people who find it So-Bad-It’s-Good. You’d be hard pushed to find someone who enjoys it for the quality of the song itself.

Firstly, we have lyric issues. For a song that ties itself so specifically to a single location (the aforementioned Galway), Sheeran doesn’t seem to know much about it. Grafton Street gets mentioned, despite the fact that Grafton is in Dublin, not Galway. The song itself is a tribute to the Irish artist Niamh Dunne, who’s from Limerick. And so on. Elsewhere, when he isn’t getting things wrong, he’s dealing 100% in Irish cliches: the girls in Galway apparently drink a lot, play folk music and listen to Van Morrison. Presumably they also wear green clothing and eat soda bread. As such, the song can’t be read about relating to Galway at all: everything is purely coded “Irish” with the invocation of Galway seemingly done purely for the alliteration.

Then there’s the music which doesn’t hold together in the slightest. Firstly we have Sheeran’s rap style, something which can be charitably described as clumsy. I mean, he defines himself as the ill-fitting hip-hop artist who doesn’t produce hip-hop songs; of course it’s clumsy. It’s on purpose. But the issue is that his rap verses here sound like all of his other rap verses: the rhythms, cadences and flows are all Sheeran audibly working on autopilot. And then we get the fiddle section which comes out of nowhere, doesn’t match with any of the other music, and occasionally features Sheeran quazi-drunkenly mumbling over it in a way that almost matches the tune. And again, this seems to be the point – this song is ultimately meant to sound like a charmingly amateur Irish pub singalong; its stupid, messy and ridiculous nature is meant to be part of the appeal. The issue is that the song never quite justifies how messy it is. The fiddle music is there because Irish music apparently equals fiddles. The rap music is there because the lyrics feature boozing, partying and drunken love; and the lyrics feature boozing, partying and drunken love because those are the subjects of most rap songs. And though the song is made of two distinct elements, there’s never any attempt to combine them: the rap part just cuts to the fiddle part before cutting back, creating an audible whiplash. Because the fiddle music is so idiosyncratic and because the cuts between song sections are so jarring, the result is a song that goes past being infectiously silly and ends up being nigh-on bewildering. And then the rap and the fiddle music isn’t even being played well (again, on purpose), making it difficult to figure out whether the sudden jarring cuts are artistic decisions or pure incompetence. The result is that it’s hard to figure out even what the song is: it aims for “stupid enough to work” and ends up “unfathomably bizarre”.

These aren’t even my critiques anymore, but they’re all echoes of things I’ve critiqued in Sheeran’s other songs. The fact that Sheeran uses “Galway” and “Irish” as synonyms belies the same lack of depth which makes him mistake “describing dead homeless woman” with “sensitive lament for the plight of the homeless”. Similarly, Galway Girl throws Folk Music and Rap Music together is the same way that Thinking Out Loud throws Boisterous Ed Sheeran Song with Sensitive Ed Sheeran song, resulting in the same sense of messiness. The only difference is that the flaws are more obvious here. Sheeran’s messy mixing is more noticeable in Galway Girl than it is in Thinking Out Loud, for instance, because the difference between a rap song and an Irish folk song is easier to discern than the difference between two types of Sheeran song. Galway Girl is ultimately the straw that broke the camel’s back; the time he stepped too far over the line.


At this point, it’d probably be prudent to ask what a good Ed Sheeran song is like. Luckily, there’s an easy example to point to: Sing, the first single released from his album x.


Sing is a club song played with an acoustic guitar, telling a story of how Ed Sheeran wants to sleep with someone at a club but is waiting for them to show interest and consent before going for it. This is another example of him merging genres, only this time it works. The use of acoustic instrumentation to play a nightclub song situates Sheeran as an acoustic artist first and foremost, creating a liminal relationship with the club genre. This is then backed up by the song’s character: he’s in a nightclub but obviously doesn’t quite get it, not understanding the unspoken rules which govern club interaction and providing an alternative version of them. The result is a rejection of those rules: a dance song merged to a more sensitive aesthetic which stresses the importance of consent, even within a club environment. It’s an effective piece of music which fulfills it’s good intention well.

It’s worth comparing Sing to Galway Girl, given that Galway Girl similarly mixes acoustic instrumentation with club music and rap. In doing this though, you are just left with the sense that Sing has been thought through more. In Sing, Sheeran hasn’t just picked two genres and decided to mash them, he’s picked two genres, thought about what the combination of those genres would imply, and built a set of lyrics which reflect the combination. This combination is also one which provides a public good, giving us a feminist-tinted version of the club form as opposed to its more common predatory version. In contrast, Galway Girl suffers from just having no conceivable point: Sheeran thought that mixing Irish fiddle music with acoustic hiphop would be funny, slammed them together, found out that the resultant song was messy enough to be accidentally funny, and just went with it. The result is that Galway Girl rings hollow in a way that Sing doesn’t. Sing reformats an entire genre to provide a social good, while Galway Girl is Sheeran messing about with Irish music because he can.

The irony is that Sing is easily the most disposable of Sheeran’s recent singles. Though it does interesting things with its genre, it’s trying to be nothing more than a bog-standard party jam. This is greatly to the song’s benefit. It takes two genres which fit together well but are rarely written together, thinks through what joining them together means and then plainly plays it out, resulting in something which is clean, sharp and focused. In contrast, Galway Girl mixes a random collection of things for no discernible reason, decides to play the resultant mess for laughs and then wobbles away without actually amounting to anything.

Sheeran ultimately works best when concentrating on smaller scales. When he goes big, he goes too big, apparently expecting any cracks to be automatically covered by the sense of scale. Meanwhile, give him something purposely small and he finds himself with nowhere to hide. All of his genre hopping and over-the-top tendencies are crutches he uses to hide when he’s not being as good as he could be, something which is a genuine shame because they obscure the fact that, when he wants to be, he is in fact a very good songwriter.

Which is ultimately my issue with Ed Sheeran’s music: the sense of complacency within it. All too often, Ed Sheeran will grab the first idea that comes to him, throw together a first draft, decide that no further work is needed, and release it for public consumption. Indeed, Sheeran seems to be open and proud about this: he little more than bragged about how he wrote the Beiber song Love Yourself in 20 minutes straight. The result is that the working components of his songs never quite fit together, resulting in them never quite managing to mean anything. That’s the thing about first drafts rushed in 20 minutes: they’re always going to be imperfect. That’s why editing is a thing. Hell, that’s why most good writers would argue that writing is editing. Yet Sheeran doesn’t seem to care. His songs don’t work pretty much because he rarely shows any interest in making them work.

The tragedy is that he could so easily be better. The idea behind The A Team is not a bad idea for a song; it’s just that Sheeran hasn’t thought about his use of it enough to realise that it’s shallow and problematic. Similarly, Thinking Out Loud isn’t a bad idea for a song, it’s just that Sheeran hasn’t thought enough about his performance to realise that it’s fighting against his lyrics. Even Galway Girl is not a bad idea for a song (mixing folk music with pop music isn’t unheard of in the slightest); the issue is entirely with how Sheeran uses these ideas, or more accurately how he can be barely said to use them at all.

This lack of effort also contributes to the sense that Sheeran’s work is just hollow. His discussion of homelessness doesn’t talk about homelessness but merely simulates sympathy towards it; his song about Galway fails to tie itself to Galway in any identifiable way; and his romantic song is more concerned with sounding romantic than actually being it. Yet the tracks foreground how big and meaningful they are in such a forceful way that they pretty much demand to be treated like sensitive, meaningful works of art. As such, Ed Sheeran songs aren’t ultimately about the audience actually feeling something but are about listening to Ed Sheeran pretending that he’s making you feel something. Ed Sheeran songs are enjoyable as long as you take them in the exact way that Ed Sheeran demands you to – as minor representations of potentially interesting ideas which you should consider meaningful without ever thinking about them too much. Any alternative readings are not allowed because they distract from Sheeran’s authorial vision. None of Sheeran’s songs are about their purported topics at all, they’re all about listening to Ed Sheeran talking about things. All of his songs foreground Sheeran as an artist, to the detriment of the songs.

This is why Sheeran’s fanbase are so rabid in their support of him: they like Sheeran himself. Because all of Sheeran’s songs are almost entirely about him, the boundaries between Ed Sheeran as a person and Sheeran’s work as a discography get broken down. This is why my critique of Thinking Out Loud went down so badly in Sheeran circles: from their perspective, I wasn’t just calling one of his songs poorly constructed, I was directly critiquing him as a person for being morally insufficient. (Ironically, it wasn’t until this post that I started doing that.) Because his fanbase is so much invested in Sheeran as a person, this then became me personally critiquing them as well. I wasn’t just a music critic reviewing one song, I was an arsehole deliberately insulting their lifestyle, taste and friendship groups. Of course they wanted me spammed off the internet.

The thing is, this audience is being completely disserved by Sheeran. Most songs feature Sheeran putting the minimum of effort into them, using the fact that he’s Ed Sheeran to get away with it. People who like Ed Sheeran then put up with it because he’s Ed Sheeran. As such, Sheeran never has to try again: we’ve proven time after time that we’ll just buy anything with his name on. So now Sheeran goes around, picking up stupid ideas that make him laugh, rushing first drafts onto CDs and selling them for public consumption. It’s horribly cynical and shows an almost complete contempt for its audience. Ed Sheeran’s fanbase is dedicated to a man who barely considers them worth trying for. And they keep allowing it to happen. We keep allowing it as a listening public overall.

In these terms, Shape Of You is quite instructive of Sheeran’s work overall. He’s only interested in the “shape of you”, the broadest strokes, the widest net. He’s only “in love with your body”, obsessed with husks and shells. Sheeran’s work is ultimately the romanticism of hollowness: a product through which you can hear a man congratulate himself for having such clever ideas. His work is nothing less, and certainly nothing more.

A No. 1 Review[s] – “Say You Won’t Let Go” by James Arthur and “Shout Out to my Ex” by Little Mix

I haven’t updated this blog in a while: in between moving house, starting a PhD, working a job, dealing with Brexit and staring dumbfoundedly at Donald “Racist Paedo-Rapist” Trump, the blog has ended up taking a backseat. I’ve been determined to finish my No. 1 reviews though so here we are, a whole bunch of posts giving quick reviews of every 2016 UK No. 1 that I missed while they were in the charts:

Say You Won’t Let Go – James Arthur


Bog-standard Post Club track where man makes himself look sensitive against a non-existent backdrop of mush. Literally nothing of interest contained in here at all.

Shout Out to My Ex – Little Mix


Bog-standard Little Mix track in which they respond to male oppression by being so girly as to become untouchable. Of course, this is all that’s required to make the song one of my favourites of the year; it’s just that, from the point of view of this blog, it leaves very little to say other than it’s an repeat of “Love Me Like You“, which in turn was a repeat of “Black Magic“, only without the magic bits.

And… honestly, that’s it. I racked my brain for months for something worth saying about these songs which didn’t just repeat something I’ve already said; alas, there was nothing. 2016 was just horribly boring and uninspired, I cannot overstate that. By way of apology, my next post is a doozy: it barely mentions the song it’s supposed to (which is probably no surprise to my readers by this point) but what it does say, I think, is interesting. And besides, I need to start getting stuff out of the way because, right at the moment, Ed Sheeran needs tackling. Prepare yourselves: the blog’s about to get messy.

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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:


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.

A No. 1 Review – “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” by Mike Posner

Previously on The Written Tevs: Pop music has moved away from being predomeninately Club Music to being what I refer to as “Pop-Club Music”, characterised by dour men whining against minimal synth/acoustic guitar accompaniment while women run around club shouting about sex.

And now back to our scheduled program:


Mike Posner has written a Post-Club song. Mike Posner. Mike Posner has a Post-Club song.

Mike Posner is one of those artists who’s regularly in the charts, yet has never produced a single note that anyone’s ever remembered. I promise you, most of the people who listen to this song on the radio will not know who sung it and will never realise they’ve heard another song by him. The reason for this is that the guy’s a pop culture chameleon: he writes whatever’s popular at the time in an actively inoffensive way, thus ensuring that a) unadventurous trend followers will buy his work in their millions and b) no-one will ever recognise the work as his because it’s lack of identifying features will allow it to disappear into the back of whatever party playlist it eventually becomes part of.

You can see this if you compare his biggest hit – Cooler Than Me – and his latest song – I Took A Pill in Ibiza – to the other songs that were popular when they were released. Cooler Than Me was released in the second half of the Club Age of Pop and had techno instrumentals, a cocky vocal delivery and an entitled set of lyrics which befitted pop’s self-aggrandising hedonistic nightclub ideology of the time. Now though, things have changed and so Mike Posner’s last hit is an underwritten acoustic whinge lamenting his wasted days clubbing in Ibiza (thus making this song pretty much a straight rejection of the ideology underlying every other song he’s released for a decade now).

Even with his inoffensive blandness though, Mike Posner still manages to be infuriating because if he does have a personality, then it’s one of a whiny self-involved douche. This is particularly true for Cooler Than Me which is primarily composed of Posner moaning about a girl at a party who won’t sleep with him because she thinks she’s “cooler than me”. The only problem is that, by the lyrics own admission, the woman is someone who’s enjoying herself and has tons of interest from several other men while Posner is sat in the corner of the room, moaning to himself about how he’s not getting any. She’s totally cooler than him. She’s completely in the right. If I was that woman, I wouldn’t sleep with Mike Posner either.

This sense of sneering that Posner cultivates feeds into I Took a Pill in Ibiza too. When he mournfully sings “I’m living out in LA / I drive a sports car just to prove / I’m a real big baller cause I made a million dollars / And I spend it on girls and shoes”, it’s meant to be an ironic counterpoint which takes the hedonistic images of club music and turns them into empty icons of defeat; but to me it just sounds like he’s still bragging about these things, only he’s doing it in a way that allows him to pretend he feels sad about it all. “Oh I live in a nice house with a manicured lawn and meet my fans in the streets and drive nice cars and have lots of money; it’s horrible.” Bite me. It’s a brag song pretending to be the opposite; I don’t believe in it.

Maybe I’m being unfair on the song though. Indeed, I’m almost definitely being unfair on the song. It does raise the very good point that a life of fame isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, and the idea of making it an acoustic song with subverted club lyrics is very clever, if somewhat zeitgeisty. And a world in which even the most uninspired of artists are paying lip-service to Post-Club values is a better world than one where they’re not. All in all-

Wait, the song that actually hit No. 1 is the SeeB remix of I Took a Pill in Ibiza?


Why would you even remix such a song? Posner’s original lyrics took club tropes and manipulated them to satirical effect; to then revert these lyrics back into a traditional club song just misses the damn point. I don’t believe Mike Posner’s original song but I can at least respect what it’s doing; this remix is less than pointless, it actively refutes it’s own meaning.

That said, I actually quite like the remixes’ sound: it has this nice half-club/half-ambient sound which reminds me of Lost Frequencies’ Are You With Me and improves quite a bit of the bland acoustic stylings of the original. It’s also much nicer to listen to than contemporaries such as Stitches (whose music is almost non-existent) and Lukas Graham (who’s still too hokey for my tastes). It still doesn’t need to exist though and doesn’t sound good enough to make up for that fact.

So yeah, all versions of this song just suck. In the case of the original, it’s mostly Mike Posner: no matter what the lyrics say, it’s still the voice from Bow Chicka Wow Wow telling me how hard his life is. In case of the remix, I don’t even know why it exists, nevermind why it’s popular. Mike Posner, even when he’s basically alright, is still hard to like. I would say that I hope that this is the last I time I hear him but I know that it won’t be; I just need to wait for the next zeitgeist to come along.



What was I saying about Posner not being original?

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


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:


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

This will become more obvious the further we go.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.