Month: April 2018

Somebody

While it’s not an overt departure from the group’s established style, “Somebody” represents a minor but critical shift in how the Chainsmokers utilize their guest vocalists. In the past, any performer featured on a Chainsmokers song either dominated the entire track (“Something Just Like This,” “Don’t Let Me Down”), had their vocals mixed in with Taggart’s (“Roses,” “All We Know”) or functioned as back-up singers (“Paris,” “The One”). The biggest exception is “Closer,” which was structured as a more classically styled duet between two performers who come together to sing the chorus. “Somebody” marks the first time that the Chainsmokers have deployed a guest vocalist in the manner of a typical pop performer: Taggart performs the verses but hands the chorus over to Drew Love, the same way a rapper might recruit a singer for an attempted cross-over hit.

This tells us a few things. The first and most obvious is that the Chainsmokers consider themselves performers with their own particular style (or “brand,” if you must) which must be present in some form throughout all of their songs, and Taggart’s vocals are a part of that brand. Taggart and Pall are currently attempting to move away from their identity as producers, so it makes sense that they would follow the same rules as any other pop star. Ariana Grande or Jason DeRulo would never release a single from which their own voices were completely absent; even Pitbull, who famously contributed about 20% of the vocals to his hit “Hey Baby”, still makes his presence felt, even if he only appears briefly.

The second thing that we can glean from this decision is a subtle dash of humility, a rare quality in the world of the Chainsmokers. By handing the song’s chorus off to a singer with a more powerful and expressive voice than his own, Taggart is, on some level, admitting that there are things he cannot do as a vocalist. This is bad news for fans of Schadenfreude, people who only care about the Chainsmokers when they can watch them totally botch a performance on live television, but it’s good news for fans of the band’s music or anyone interested their ongoing creative evolution. Drew Love’s appearance demonstrates that Taggart will not stretch himself too far beyond his limits, and that both he and Pall are still aware of how working with a guest vocalist can open up new possibilities for their music.

After “Somebody”, it’s not impossible to imagine the Chainsmokers releasing another song like “Something Just Like This”, where their own creative identity is partially or completely subsumed by another performer — but unless they score another name as big as Coldplay, it doesn’t seem likely.

Lyrically, “Somebody” is a song about the false promise of happiness that comes with success and the ongoing struggle to not succumb to devastation once you discover it was all an illusion. The song’s subject matter is unsurprising  in our current cultural moment, where the spiritual emptiness of fame is an expected, even formulaic subject matter for any artist who wants to develop a critique of modern life. But until “Somebody,” Taggart and Pall had yet to release this sort of song, and now that they have, it adds yet another dimension to their current artistic project.

Ever since the Chainsmokers dropped “Sick Boy” and revealed that they are, for lack of a better term, “pulling an 808s & Heartbreak” (also known as “going full Drake”), it’s been only a matter of time before we got a song like “Somebody”. “Sick Boy,” their first single of 2018, was more a declaration of intent than a fully formed creative statement. “You Owe Me” was a modern take on critics and fandom; “Everybody Hates Me” was specifically about the pressures of being famous in the digital age. “Somebody,” on the other hand, tackles the timeless signifiers of success: “fancy cars, crowded bars and supermodels.” The song addresses the dangers of entering into a world where your every wish is attended to, and how the addiction to that kind of lifestyle can corrupt and consume a person’s sense of self.

Interestingly, the Chainsmokers seem mostly unworried with regards to the moral rot or emotional turmoil that fame can bring; rather, their primary concern is the loss of the individual identity. You can hear this in the refrain, “I don’t really like anybody/So don’t tell me I’m like anybody else”; the narrator is deeply anxious about are losing themselves to this new world, and he responds to that feeling with aimless, unfocused aggression. This behavior is consistent with the psychological concept of ‘displacement’, wherein the subject is unable to confront or process the actual source of their distress and often ends up scapegoating another person or group of people. In this case, the singer is scared and angry about the possibility is losing his personality (and, perhaps, his soul) to these new temptations, but he ends up directing this aggression outward, towards the people he believes have already succumb to the hazards of worldliness. He may say “I don’t really like anybody,” but really, he doesn’t like himself.

This much is obvious when Taggart sings, seemingly in second-person, “You should’ve known better/than to listen to your heart again.” At first, this line scans as another lyric about a failed relationship. But when read in conjunction with the chorus, it becomes clear that the singer is referring to the morally questionable choices he has made in this new world of material pleasures. The heart — or, rather, the part of the mind driven by sentimental notions of goodness and love — the thing that we often rely upon as a morally sound guide through this confusing and dangerous world, might in fact be the thing that lead us astray to begin with. It is, to put it lightly, a disquieting notion, and among the most chillingly dark lyrics that the Chainsmokers have produced to date.

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The Fifth Chainsmoker

One of the most fascinating things about the Chainsmokers is the way they meaningfully integrate contemporary technology like cell phones and social media into their work. Their interest in this subject stretches all the way back to “#SELFIE”, but that song is, to be generous, a little shallow. It does capture some of the everyday absurdity that comes with maintaining a public image online, but to no real end — aside from mocking its female protagonist for her supposed vanity.

But in the group’s recent work, beginning with Memories… Do Not Open and continuing into their current run of singles, the Chainsmokers have learned to fold these references into their subject matter organically. Their songs casually reference cell phones as modern life’s most ubiquitous device while also addressing the sense of profound alienation that technology can create, and this stylistic evolution would simply not be possible without the work of singer-songwriter Emily Warren.

Warren first collaborated with the Chainsmokers on 2015’s “Until You Were Gone,” but she didn’t actually meet the group in person until they co-wrote “Don’t Let Me Down” (along with Warren’s frequent collaborator Scott Harris¹), the group’s massively successful follow-up to “Roses” that solidified their position as reliable hit-makers. Right away, we can see Warren’s impact on the group in terms of sheer survival. If not for the success of “Don’t Let Me Down,” the second act of the Chainsmokers’ career might have ended prematurely, and the world would have been denied their two most significant contributions to American culture: the song “Closer” and that one Instagram post where Drew is helping Alex with his resistance training.

Even before her collaboration with the Taggart and Pall really started to heat up, Warren was already a proven talent in the music industry, writing songs for Fifth Harmony, Shawn Mendes, James Blunt and many others. Much of this work is very good and most of it is deserving of discussion regarding the creative development of a singular talent, but two songs in particular point the way towards the subject matter she would later explore in-depth: “No Filter” by Britt Nicole and “Phone Down” by DJ duo Lost Kings, featuring vocals from Warren herself.

“No Filter” is a song about two people in a dying relationship who still feel the need to pretend everything is fine. It’s tried and true subject matter for a sad pop song, but Warren gives it a modern touch by framing the couple’s superficial happiness around the pictures they post online. The verses reveal details of the couple’s life (“I think we got the perfect shot/You’d never know at dinner, we didn’t even talk”), while the chorus draws a direct parallel between their personal unhappiness (“And what we let the whole world see/Isn’t really you and me”) and the more broadly relatable issue of the pressure people feel to present a certain type of image online (“We always put a filter on/To try to cover up the flaws”).

It’s an interesting idea, but it ends up being too vague to really connect. The details of the couple’s life, while realistic, lack the specificity needed to be truly compelling, and the song itself, with all due respect to Britt Nicole, ends up being a bit of a drag. But if “No Filter” ends up falling short of its lofty goals, it’s still hard to get too down on it; Warren was addressing a massive, unwieldy topic here, so it’s not surprising that the end result is a bit awkward.

More fun (and far more successful) is “Phone Down,” a song that should resonate with anyone who’s ever had to compete with a cell phone for someone’s attention. Unlike “No Filter,” “Phone Down” doesn’t use cell phones or social media as a metaphor for anything; this is quite literally a song about the frustration of having a quiet, romantic moment ruined by the appearance of a glowing blue screen in your partner’s hand.

Warren is no luddite. This isn’t a song about how we should all toss our phones into the sea and live free from society’s influence; it’s just an acknowledgment that some aspects of modern technology have intruded on our personal lives in unique ways. That it believably builds this story around a dance track with a cathartic hook is a testament to Warren’s talents as both songwriter and performer, two skillets that would prove equally valuable when she collaborated with the Chainsmokers on their debut album.

Emily Warren is the first voice you hear on Memories… Do Not Open, providing background vocals for “The One,” one of four songs on the album that she co-wrote. In addition to providing vocal support on this and three other songs (including “Paris”), Warren uses her writerly instincts to helps Taggart sharpen the self-loathing artistic persona that he’s been developing since “Closer” and contributes lines such as “Let’s go, let’s end this/I delete before I send it/And we can play pretend like we haven’t reached the end yet,” which seamlessly and relatable incorporate cell phone imagery into the narrative of an impending break-up.

Aside from helping set the tone of the entire record and expanding its sonic palette with her own unique voice, Warren’s presence provides a much-needed sense of balance. Since much of the album’s lyrics concern self-destructive men and the women in their lives, it’s incredibly helpful to have Warren singing a song like “My Type” from the point of view of a woman who finds herself inevitably attracted to this very same subset of unreliable partners.

A song like “Honest,” with its morally shady late-night confessions hedged by claims of internal conflict, could not exist without a song like “Don’t Say,” which is explicitly about not accepting these sort of of excuses and features the cutting refrain “Don’t say you’re human/Don’t say it’s not your fault”. If someone finds the pop-emo stylings of Memories distasteful, no one song is going to win them over, but Warren’s presence stretches over more than a third of the album’s run-time and prevents it from being fully consumed by a black hole of self-obsession.

Warren is credited as co-writer on all three singles that the Chainsmoker’s have released in 2018. Her razor-sharp writing instincts are now fully integrated with the group’s surprising musical evolution, producing some of the most unexpected and fascinating songs of the year. Removed from the novelty of its initial release, “Sick Boy” still contains the indelible couplet “Feed yourself on my life’s work/How many likes is my life worth”, an absolutely classic Warren line that scans as mildly clever on its own but is somehow attains great power when sung by an artist who many people would dismiss as disposable. “You Owe Me” is a darkly modern twist on the classic middle-finger-to-critics style of song, and “Everybody Hates Me” is such a perfect encapsulation of the group’s entire aesthetic that it’s hard to imagine where they can even go from here.

The influence of Warren’s artistry extends far beyond her work with Taggart and Pall. She co-wrote the massively popular Dua Lipa song “New Rules” and Charli XCX’s critically-acclaimed single “Boys”, and the work she’s released as a solo performer demonstrates that she’s certainly a performer to watch in her own right. But her ongoing collaboration with the Chainsmokers is a perfect pairing of creators, each of them elevating and expanding the scope of the other’s work. As the group continues their transition from DJ duo to pop stars, Warren is their most consistent and vital collaborator and an irreplaceable talent. If George Martin was the fifth Beatle, then Emily Warren is the fifth Chainsmoker.²

1. Harris, by the way, wrote Stephen Jerzak’s “Party Like You’re Single,” the best bad song that you’ve never heard of.

2. Before you write in: I am aware that this analogy has a major, glaring flaw — namely, that while the Beatles were really a four-person band, the Chainsmokers is “officially” composed of only two people. Your objections are noted and, while a bit pedantic, very much appreciated.

Review Reviews: Memories… Do Not Open

Pitchfork

Review: The Chainsmokers, Memories… Do Not Open

“Despite the preponderance of sad piano across the album, the Chainsmokers remain preening arena hams who make videos that look like Maxim spreads.”

A remarkably sober evaluation from an image-obsessed tastemaker best known for pretentious writing, Pitchfork’s review of Memories… Do Not Open is a fair and balanced attempt to place this album in a larger cultural context. Since they abandoned the grating, self-involved type of criticism that was their house style in the early days, this sort of birds-eye contextualization is now the apparent goal of every review that Pitchfork publishes. And they’ve gotten quite good at it: in just two short paragraphs, longtime music critic and professional DJ Philip Sherburne effectively tracks the progression of the Chainsmokers’ music from mindless party jams toward “slower tempos, slinky melodies, and songs about bruised feelings,” a mix of legitimate evolution and cynical marketing that he deems “a canny move.”

Sherburne’s biggest problem with the album is that it’s neither fun enough to live up to the band’s reputation as EDM’s most hate-able party bros, nor deep enough to justify the shift towards more introspective songwriting. He accuses the album of “toggling between cheap thrills and bitter recriminations with all the emotional stakes of a drunken beach fight caught on Snapchat,” which is exactly the sort of culturally-relevant critical slam-dunk that Pitchfork was built for. But it’s far from the only Classic Pitchfork moment in the review: Sherburne describes the closing track “Last Day Alive” as “the musical equivalent of a poster of fighter jets,” which is hilarious, surprising, and the sort of dead-on analogy that can’t be written  without a deep understanding of the music being discussed.

Only a truly pedantic reading of this review could uncover anything seriously obnoxious. But even when Sherburne off-handedly mentions the number of credited writers on the album (in an attempt to casually discredit the group’s artistry) or, in his conclusion, implies that the Chainsmokers don’t deserve an in-depth critical reading because their songs are too popular, it’s still hard to hold it against him. If Pitchfork had reviewed this album fifteen years ago, it would have been next-level insufferable, like their review of Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American or any of their obnoxiously self-impressed ‘concept’ reviews. Pitchfork hasn’t lost their cultural cachet in recent years, but they’ve shifted their focus towards writing that is legitimately useful in today’s over-saturated musical marketplace.  Whether they helped initiate the move away from narcissistic music criticism or merely sniffed the shifting winds, it was, you might say, a canny move.

Spin

You Know Exactly What The Chainsmokers’ Memories… Do Not Open Sounds Like

“Taggart took a star turn on ‘Closer,’ the smash hit that briefly dressed the Chainsmokers up as the Postal Service, and is just about the only singer you hear on ‘Paris,’ the new smash hit that dresses the Chainsmokers up as the Chainsmokers dressed up as the Postal Service.”

Jordan Sargent opens his review of Memories… Do Not Open by invoking Bob Dylan, an outrageous decision clearly intended to catch the eye. The comparison between Dylan’s transition to a more rock-inspired sound and the Chainsmokers’ own creative evolution, as over-the-top as it is, could be an interesting starting point for a discussion, but ultimately, Sargent doesn’t justify this opening salvo with any particular insight. Unfortunately, this pattern of a joke feinting towards insight but failing to deliver is repeated throughout the review, which leans heavily on snark at the expense of any actual in-depth criticism.

The article’s thesis, and the one kernel of genuine musical criticism, is tucked away in the third paragraph, where Sargent claims that the Chainsmokers have a single, unchanging musical template, variations of which they repeat across the entire album. Considering the obvious similarities between their break-out hit “Closer” and the content of Memories… Do Not Open, it’s a fair criticism, and one that could be explored further. Sargent, however, undercuts this potential almost immediately, as he attempts to elucidate his main point: “The Chainsmokers have one song… that one song is that same sort of morose piano ballad refashioned for whatever wave of EDM we’re currently in, the one where the drops are more often like coos into your ear than bashes over your head. (Some people call this ‘future bass.’ I dunno.)”

Sargent’s casual dismissal of an entire sub-genre, is, one supposes, meant to be funny, particularly to the kind of person who reflexively laughs at what they consider the over-classification of music. But in reality, to boldly claim your lack of interest in the genre of music you are currently discussing suggest intellectual laziness or a lack of curiosity. But even a brief glance at his work confirms that Sargent is, typically, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic consumer of music.

This leaves us with only one possible explanation: because of the Chainsmokers’ status as widely-accepted targets of public ridicule, Sargent legitimately didn’t feel the need to critically examine their music in a manner that might illuminate their popularity (aside from a few half-hearted references to Taggart as a boy-next-door type). Instead, he wasted his time joking about the group’s awkward appearance on SNL and building tortured, half-clever metaphors around the group’s name, all in a misguided attempt to stunt on two guys who may already qualify as the most stunted-upon dudes in music. Some people call this “clever.” I dunno.

The New York Times

The Chainsmokers Find That Pop Is an Awkward Fit

“In the ecosystem in which the Chainsmokers have thrived — big-festival dance music and the pop that derives from its distillation — the album is a meaningless concept, and the album format underscores both this duo’s weaknesses and strengths.”

The New York Times just can’t help itself. Even in an article written with precision and clarity by longtime music critic Jon Caramanica about the two goofiest members of a scene that was, in Caramanica’s own words, “designed for ecstatic release, but also one that was easily parodied,” the Times, as a self-styled pillar of integrity in a chaotic world, must craft every article with the aim of being the final word on any particular topic, the be-all end-all for the rest of recorded time. For this reason, Caramanica must, regardless of his own feelings, begin his review of Memories… Do Not Open with the absolutely Biblical lede, “From the beginning, the Chainsmokers knew dance music was a joke.”

Caramanica, to his credit, doesn’t devote much time to the already well-covered issue of the Chainsmokers’ public persona, and instead looks at how their individual success reflects the state of pop music as a whole. This is perhaps too grandiose of a framework to hang on twelve songs about being drunk and sad sung over “the musical equivalent of bringing an amiable golden retriever along for an unhurried jog.” Still, it’s hard to argue with Caramanica’s claim that the pop-chart dance-music explosion turned out to be nothing but means by which to expand pop’s sonic palette to include the rhythms of EDM. Although, it’s hard to imagine what the alternative to this “long con” could have been: a complete abolishment of the Billboard Hot 100 and the ultimate ascension of the Dance Club Songs chart? One shudders to think.

On the whole, the Times review is competent and insightful, applauding the Chainsmokers for attempting something new but critiquing the ways in which they fall short of their ambitions. The article is sprinkled with the bite-size critical nuggets that often fill these sort of pieces: Taggart is “a capable but unexciting singer”; the tempo moves at “something more than a slog but less than a gallop”; the best songs on the album have “an emotional texture the others grasp for futilely”; a less-successful effort is “a twinkle with no diamond.”

And yet, for all the capable writing on display, it’s hard to ignore how futile the whole thing feels. Caramanica himself highlights how much of dance music is driven by irresistible feelings of build and release, primal physical and emotional sensations that have almost nothing to do with what you read in the ‘Arts & Leisure’ section of the New York Times. If you already understand the music, you don’t need a review, and if you need to read a review, you’ll never understand the music. In this ecosystem, the album review is a meaningless concept, and the review format underscores both Caramanica’s strengths and weaknesses. In the end, there’s just not that much to talk about.