“Side Effects” is such a radical departure from everything the Chainsmokers have been doing this year that it suggests a major shift in their current strategy. It originally seemed that Taggart and Pall planned to release one song a month for the entire year, but it’s been three full months since their previous single “Somebody”, which made only a minor impact on the charts. Of the four songs they released between January and April, “Sick Boy” has been the most successful, and even that hasn’t come anywhere near the group’s past hits.
The underwhelming performance of the group’s recent singles might be the reasoning behind the stylistic pivot of “Side Effects.” “Side Effects” is the first of their 2018 singles where Andrew Taggart does not perform lead vocals and the first not to address the subjects that have become the band’s primary thematic concerns: the negative effects of social media, the dangers of fame, and the way those things intersect in modern times. Instead, “Side Effects” is a self-consciously fun and breezy “summer bop” with highly relatable lyrics and none of the darkness that has accompanied their previous four songs.
While it lacks the bracing honesty and weirdness of something like “Everybody Hates Me,” “Side Effects” does make for a fine piece of mid-summer pop-funk with a sprinkling of classic house style. The strutting, bass-heavy instrumental bears more than a passing resemblance to the recent output of one Charles Otto Puth Jr., but (hopefully) not enough to draw the ire of his most ravenous fans — “Sick Boy” lifted some stylistic elements from a few songs by Twenty One Pilots and that band’s cultish followers still haven’t shut up about it.
Lyrically, frequent co-writer Emily Warren revisits the subject matter of previous songs like “Don’t Say” and “My Type,” tirelessly reporting on the intoxicating ups and downs of being attracted to someone who you know you shouldn’t be with. If the lyrics are lacking in the deliciously anti-social and specifically modern barbs of this era’s previous singles (“how many likes is my life worth,” “I don’t really like anybody,” etc.), it’s only because the subject matter is so much more conventional.
“Conventional” in this case is not necessarily a negative — everyone involved in the production and writing of this song knows exactly how to deliver a solid dance track, and Warren gives her best vocal performance on a Chainsmokers song since “Until You Were Gone”. If “Side Effects” had been released between “All We Know” and “Setting Fires” it would rank as one of the most straight-up enjoyable songs the band has ever released. The only problem with this song is the potential future it suggests for the Chainsmokers, one that is considerably less interesting than the direction they seemed to be heading in.
If their recently singles failed to perform as well as expected, it only makes sense that the Chainsmokers — or, more likely, someone at Columbia records — would want to alter their approach. It would be a shame if “Side Effects” marks the end of the era that began with “Sick Boy,” forcing the Chainsmokers to retreat into a style that has paid such high dividends in the past, churning out pop-EDM with generic lyrics sung by a roster of faceless indie performers (and, occasionally, Chris Martin), but it wouldn’t be surprising. The folks at Columbia don’t have any reason to care that the Chainsmokers were just coming into their own as musicians and developing a unique identity within a space that few other acts could occupy; all that matters to them is that the boys can keep churning out hits, and once you put up numbers like they did with “Closer,” it’s awfully hard to go back.
There is, however, a more charitable interpretation of this song’s existence: namely, that Taggart and Pall wanted to give their long-term collaborator and friend Emily Warren a proper spotlight on one of their singles, now that they’ve established their own identity and no longer feel pressured to consign her to ‘uncredited guest vocals’ as they did om “Paris.” It would take a bit of naivete to believe this version of events, but that doesn’t place it entirely outside the realm of possibility.
Really, we won’t be able to fully understand the philosophy of “Side Effects” until we hear what the Chainsmokers release next — which, in all likelihood, is dependent on what the general reaction is to “Side Effects.” Meaning that, even if you enjoy this song (as I do), you can’t help but feel a little gross about what it represents. It’s a complicated situation — exactly the sort of thing that the Chainsmokers used to write songs about.