“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.
“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
“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.