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Imagine Dragons Hope to Eliminate Solitude in Our Modern Existence on 'Origins'

Album Review: Troye Sivan - Bloom

Album Review: Ariana Grande - Sweetener

Album Review: Pink - Beautiful Trauma

Album Review: Maroon 5 - Red Pill Blues

Imagine DragonsImagine Dragons Hope to Eliminate Solitude in Our Modern Existence on 'Origins'

Imagine Dragons' fourth album, Origins, is better focused than its immediate predecessor, 2017's Evolve, but still follows a safe path and never generates much excitement. Frontman Dan Reynolds sings with carousing ambition, and the album contains interesting instrumental forays with guitar solos and solid backing. In the end, it's simply too middle-of-the-road, sure to chart well and find audiences attracted to clear pop sensibilities, but indicative of the band searching for too much and committing too little to veer away from where they've found success.

Origins was produced with much of the same production team behind Evolve, including Alex da Kid, Joel Little, Mattman & Robin, and John Hill, but added Jorgen Odegard and Kygo as collaborators. The album includes a track produced for promotion and inclusion of Disney's animated film Ralph Breaks the Internet, "Zero", while the strong opening track and lead single, "Natural", was used to promote college football on ESPN (another Disney connection). "Natural" opens with a throbbing vocal performance initially backed with a loud hummed harmony, before transitioning into a beating, engulfing charge of lyrical demands. There is a nice, quiet refrain across the middle of the track, and compositionally the song feels like a determined, confident band. The song recalls the popularity of their massive hit "Radioactive", both in style and substance. It's the kind of throbbing, stadium stomping hit that perfectly promos football and is equally radio-friendly without sounding like you've heard the song on TV. In a similar style, "Boomerang", "Machine", and "Cool Out" track different pop styles, from acoustic through electronic bass-driven instrumentals, to heavily synthetic keys that quickly muddle the direction of the album as opened by "Natural".

Imagine Dragons excel with a strong pop-rock song like "Natural", and their experimentations are not without merit, but Origins includes generous musical compositions like "Bad Liar" and "West Coast" that are easily disregarded. Neither evoke the crowd-pleasing and loud hits to be found on the radio but explore different elements of modern pop songs and fit perfectly alongside "Natural". Both feel acoustic and quietly evoke emotional necessity, but also don't always feel like they are trying to do so. "Bad Liar" is confessional with sweet instrumentals and a nice soundscape for Reynolds lyrics that transitions with similar impassioned pleas featured on "Naturals" and reminiscent of "Radioactive" and give the song depth. An acoustic guitar picked dominates "West Coast" and provides a clever counter to more use of background melodies and striking percussion.

Without having seen the Disney film for Zero, it's easy enough to discern how the song will end Ralph Breaks the Internet and play over the credits. Lyrics search for feeling and escape, and ultimately it is a forced composition that breaks the trajectory of the album unnecessarily. Of course, this highlights a faltering component of Origins and Imagine Dragons, but equally an aspect their fans and pop listeners are looking for: catchy, sentimental, and personal. Dan Reynolds shares a lot of himself in the lyrics to "Zero", so remember it's meant to play with Ralph, too.

he final three tracks of the album convey too general messages in line with "Digital". Lyrical delivery segues into a strong key-based instrumental and chorus on "Only", but the message of solitude is not compelling, and the song sounds like it is presenting sentimentality for that existence. Sentimentality largely closes Origins, with "Stuck" and "Love" demonstrating a vulnerability through Reynolds lyrics, and calling for reprieve amidst chaos and disorder.

Origins includes enough interesting tracks to carry Imagine Dragons success further, but the band's strength in composing bombastic and loud songs that are immediate and inspire crowd-pleasing revelry are too few. Cheers to the band and their collaborators for producing sonic diversions and conveying messages designed to eliminate solitude and alienation in modern culture, but those elements fall flat with tracks too general in scope that dominate the album. Imagine Dragons are confident in their capability and knowledge of pop music, but Origins tries too hard to demonstrate their varied interests with the results generic and indistinct.

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Troye SivanAlbum Review: Troye Sivan - Bloom

The Australian singer’s second album exudes a chic kind of vulnerability. It is a warm and delicate pop album about life as a young gay man.

I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that Troye Sivan gets it. The Australian YouTuber-turned-pop star has all the qualifications you’d look for in a modern-day gay icon—a devoted army of long-time fans, elfin features, celebrities and designers on speed dial—and the good sense to recognize how meaningless and outmoded that kind of title is. “I just don’t represent everybody, because I’m extraordinarily lucky,” Sivan told British style magazine Another Man in May. “I come from a middle-class white family in Australia, and all of my dreams have come true by 22. I had the easiest coming out in the world… There are plenty of other people who need to be heard first.”

Give him an opportunity, and he’ll happily rattle off the names of other musicians at the vanguard of queer representation: Sam Smith, Halsey, Kehlani, Perfume Genius, Kevin Abstract, Hayley Kiyoko. He invited Kim Petras on tour as an opening act and deftly handled the ensuing backlash over her work with Dr. Luke, making donations to the Ally Coalition and RAINN. His humility would feel performative and cynical if it weren’t so thorough. Blink and you might forget why Sivan is holding court on these topics in the first place: He’s an evolutionary artist, one whose existence and career is the product of decades of baby steps and boundary-pushing. Being gay is an integral and visible part of Sivan’s art, just as much as his voice or his choice of collaborators.

Bloom, Sivan’s second studio album, is best described in terms you rarely see associated with male pop stars: delicacy, transparency, and vulnerability. He sings about experiences that are commonplace for young gay men in 2018 but feel totally transgressive in a broader pop context. He wrote opener “Seventeen” about sneaking onto Grindr with a fake ID and hooking up with older men, and the title track captures bottoming for the first time in all of its agony and ecstasy.

The subject matter draws headlines, but it’s less revelatory than what’s between the lines. You can feel the power dynamics underpinning each of these songs shifting in unpredictable ways. Sivan starts both “Seventeen” and “Bloom” in a playful mood, teasing his partner, flirting, issuing commands. He’s an object of desire, and that puts him in control. “I got these beliefs that I think you wanna break,” he taunts on “Seventeen.” “Got something here to lose that I think you wanna take from me.” Just a few seconds later, he’s lost his footing: the older man he’s sought out for a virgin fling might not be so easy to manipulate in the heat of the moment. The “Bloom” pre-chorus is a nervous whimper—“I need you to tell me right before it goes down/Promise me you’ll hold my hand if I get scared now”—just before Sivan relaxes and enjoys the ride.

There’s a remarkable amount of tension in those moments, and Bloom would feel exhausting if every song was built around those kinds of formative experiences. It also offers less complicated pleasures, songs that are simpler yet still breathtakingly tender. Sivan is comfortable with desperation. He knows how it can feel like life and death hinge on scheduling a second date or sending a postcard. Lead single “My My My!” feels euphoric because of the interplay between its growled verses and pulse-pounding chorus; it feels uniquely Sivan’s because of the stakes. He’s found a guy who makes him feel like he’ll “die every night,” and when he reaches the bridge, he dares to dream of a life spent that satisfied. (He calls his lover a “treasure” and inhales sharply through clenched teeth, and it feels like the most consequential breath he’s ever taken.) Sivan also has a knack for gorgeous, concise imagery. On “Plum,” a relationship that’s nearing its end is “like bitter tangerine/like sirens in the streets.” He wants to “skip stones on [the] skin” of a boy who tastes like Lucky Strikes.

Bloom’s fragility makes for an interesting contrast with its surprisingly conservative sound. Sivan largely works with the same team and palette that defined his 2015 debut Blue Neighborhood: mid-tempo, richly hued post-Lorde pop. And while there are some welcome flourishes from unexpected sources—Ariel Rechtshaid and cult fave Jam City add celestial sparkle to regretful ballad “The Good Side,” and massive closer “Animal” swerves from a menacing rumble (courtesy of Rechtshaid, Jam City, and the Haxan Cloak) to a bridge clearly inspired by Frank Ocean’s Blonde—too much of Bloom congeals into a tasteful, muted lump. Beyond “My My My!” and the title track, its melodies and arrangements lack the urgency that defines its writing.

You can draw an interesting comparison between Sivan and his friend and collaborator Ariana Grande. They duet on “Dance to This,” an understated celebration of the pleasures of domesticity: Why go out on the town when you could stay in and have a party for two? Bloom isn’t as consistent or engaging a musical experience as Sweetener, but it still feels meaningful. If Sivan is the product of baby steps, then maybe this is one of his: bonding with one of the planet’s biggest pop stars over quiet moments with the men they love, with absolutely nothing to hide.

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ArianaAlbum Review: Ariana Grande - Sweetener

If there's a thematic thread weaving through Ariana Grande's fourth album, Sweetener, it's that not everything is what it seems. The album's first two singles attest to that notion: The deceptively mournful strains that open “No Tears Left to Cry” give way to a rush of shuffling garbage beats and a euphoric hook that remains at almost half-speed throughout, while the sultry, reggae-infused “God Is a Woman” is a feminist anthem disguised as a baby-making slow jam, a deeper reading revealing that Grande's professed feminine wiles aren't merely carnal. “I can be all the things you told me not to be/When you try to come for me, I keep on flourishing,” she sings defiantly.

Another pre-release track, “The Light Is Coming,” at first seems spiritual in nature, hinged on Grande's infectious mantra, “The light is coming to give back everything the darkness stole.” But the song also doubles as a rejoinder to our current political climate, an impression bolstered by an audio sample of a man at a town hall venting his frustrations about being silenced by those who are supposed to represent him, and syncopated verses in which Grande condemns a culture that incentivizes the questioning of others' experiences.

The 25-year-old singer's newfound wokeness was, perhaps, prompted in part by the deadly suicide bombing at her concert in Manchester, England last year. Grande recently disclosed that she was plagued by anxiety in the wake of the attack, a topic she sings about candidly here. She has a keen understanding of the seemingly illusory nature of panic attacks on “Breathin”—“Feel my blood running, swear the sky's falling/I know that all this shit's fabricated”—and offers a shoulder to others suffering from PTSD on “Get Well Soon,” the running time of which corresponds with the date of the Manchester attack.

Elsewhere on the album, Grande is savvy enough to deliver her message about the importance of mental health in more nuanced ways. Though “No Tears Left to Cry” is about resilience, it's wisely packaged as a love song. And despite her ostensible maturity, Grande retains her playful, girlish sense of humor on the Prince-esque “Successful” and an interpolation of Imogen Heap's sublime “Goodnight n Go,” on which the singer implores: “Oh, why'd you have to be so cute?/It's impossible to ignore you.”

Grande's vocals strike a measured chord throughout Sweetener, mostly settling into breathy Mariah mode, her words dripping into each other on the understated “Better Off” and blending seamlessly into the sleek synths in the background of the brief “Borderline.” Even within that style, however, Grande differentiates her delivery, whether it's the half-rapped refrains of “No Tears Left to Cry” or the swooning girl-group harmonies of “R.E.M.”

Notably missing from Sweetener are any outright bangers. Despite its title, “Blazed” percolates unobtrusively, as do most of the other Pharrell-assisted tracks. The simmering “The Light Is Coming” is all skittish beats and throbbing sub-bass, while “R.E.M”—which features a hook taken from a Beyoncé demo—bops along to a midtempo groove of fingersnaps, 808s, and looped breaths.

The album's offbeat title track is an oddity that doesn't quite gel, marred by mixed metaphors and a grating refrain in which Grande plays her own hypewoman, and “Borderline” features a lamentably sqaundered cameo from Missy Elliott and paint-can beats that sound like they were exhumed from a Neptunes track from 2002. For the most part, though, the formula results in an album that's both consistent and refined, a reflection of Grande's growing awareness of herself as an artist and her place in the world.

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PinkAlbum Review: Pink - Beautiful Trauma

Another Pink album populated with misfits and outcasts, Beautiful Trauma doesn’t lack for hard-headed but tenderhearted lovers trying to make the most of things despite their failings and imperfections. The title track, which opens the album, chronicles love won through all manner of hardship and vice, what Pink describes as her “perfect rock bottom.” She’s even more direct on “Where We Go,” singing to her partner, “We’ve both always been broken.”

As if to mirror Pink’s lyrics, the arrangements here seek to cull meaning from her messes. Beautiful Trauma is as sprawling as any of Pink’s past albums, packed with her signature skyscraping piano ballads and rowdy pop anthems, though it leaves room for fleet-footed folk, pulsing EDM, and—for her second album in a row—a crass, slightly out-of-place guest verse from Eminem. On paper, it all reads like the platonic ideal of a Pink project: a slightly warped pop album full of bent-and-broken songs about bent-and-broken people. So why does it never feel quite as raucous or unkempt as it should?

Beautiful Trauma’s neat construction renders the album less than the sum of its parts.

The album is too conspicuous in touching on all the sounds that have shaped the pop charts since Pink’s last album, 2012’s The Truth Above Love. “Where We Go” has the big-footed stomp of Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, while “What About Us” is a spacy, atmospheric track with a pulsating dance beat. It’s to Pink’s credit that she sounds like a natural handling all of this material, yet the roundup of these styles can’t help but seem just a bit calculated for an album that’s supposedly about messiness. Producer Jack Antonoff lends these songs shape and focus, and there’s little fat to be found throughout. Yet, it all sounds a little too clean, too tidy, too easily resolved.

Beautiful Trauma’s neat construction renders the album less than the sum of its parts, but individual songs work well enough, thanks in no small part to Pink’s personality and charisma. The best moments are the soul-baring ones, where the singer’s beautiful-loser fixation feels raw and real: “Barbies,” with its gentle folk vibe, is pained in its longing for a simpler, easier time, while “But We Lost It” immediately takes its place among her most affecting damaged-love songs. Like the artist herself, the album demonstrates its humanity through tension and friction, when Pink’s sharp lyrics and deeply felt vocals push against the too-slick production.

The pop gods can sometimes work in mysterious ways. When Pink arrived on the scene in 2000 with the hit “There You Go,” she became the third wheel to the Britney Spears-Christina Aguilera duopoly. “Tired of being compared to damn Britney Spears,” she even griped on her 2002 single “Don’t Let Me Get Me.” But whereas Brit and Xtina are not the ruling divas they once were, Pink has just gotten better and better. Her last effort, 2012’s The Truth About Love, was a career high, a fully realized work that also became her first No. 1 album. After five years away — during which she had her second child, son Jameson Moon, last December — Pink shows that she may just be getting this party started on her seventh LP, Beautiful Trauma.

Like its predecessor, the new album reveals more brutal truths about love from the unfiltered mind of Alecia Moore. On the chamber-tinged title tune — one of two tracks produced and cowritten by Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff — love is a drug (“The pill I keep taking, the nightmare I wake in”) that takes you down as much as it gets you high. Pink continues to ride that relationship roller coaster throughout Beautiful Trauma. On the pop-rock stomper “Whatever You Want,” she’s a ride-or-die partner committing to go down together because “‘you’re the one I wanna sink with.” Meanwhile, on the R&B-flavored “Better Life,” she wonders if her man could be dreaming of a “better wife” while he sleeps: “I’ve been up late watching you breathe/Wondering if you’re gonna leave.” And the single “What About Us” — as beautifully melancholy as a song with such a galloping chorus could be — asks “about all the broken happy ever afters” without finding any neat answers.

Proving to be just as loyal as you might expect from her, Pink reunites with trusted collaborators like Max Martin, Shellback, Greg Kurstin and Billy Mann on Beautiful Trauma. They help make the record sound both fresh and familiar, with occasional curves like the gospelized rave-up “I Am Here.” Elsewhere, Eminem follows up his guest turn on The Truth About Love’s “Here Comes the Weekend” with a cheeky cameo on “Revenge,” a rare comical moment. But Pink brings the album home with the Adele-esque “You Get My Love,” one of several ballads — two of which were cowritten by Julia Michaels — that show just how far she has left Britney and Christina behind. A-

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Maroon 5Album Review: Maroon 5 - Red Pill Blues

Adam Levine’s band return for their sixth album of smooth, professional, antiseptic soft-rock, which somehow also features Kendrick Lamar, Future, and A$AP Rocky.

Adam Levine’s voice is one of the most benignly ubiquitous sounds in pop. It is air-conditioning, it is tap water, it is a thermostat set to 72 degrees. It’s coming, right now, from behind that potted plant over there. It doesn’t even belong to Levine’s throat alone—it is a sine wave that has also been loaned out to Akon, to Bruno Mars, to Nico & Vinz. It’s a voice that can sound vaguely like the Police, vaguely like Hall & Oates, or vaguely a young Michael Jackson. On 2012’s “One More Night,” it sounded vaguely like Rihanna. Forget his role as actual judge of singers—his voice has been its own franchise for years, rebooting itself year after year.

The fact that there is a band behind Levine, with lineup largely intact and original members miraculously unfired is a fact that seems to surprise even the band’s fans (they call themselves “Marooners.”) Here’s a fun test: Google “Maroon 5 members” and behold just how many results focus on the fact that yes, the band does have other members. It’s hard to blame these poor Marooners. Pulling my headphones off in the coffee shop where I was listening to this album, I discovered the same Maroon 5 single playing quietly over the system that I had just finished listening to. They are a piece of our built environment, and caring about them seems like a strange philosophical test: Can you care about bathwater or halogen lamps? Do you know that Maroon 5 has recorded five previous studio albums?

They have! Their sixth, Red Pill Blues, generated a groundswell of online response insofar as people wondered if the members knew that “the red pill” is a toxic term inextricably linked to the alt-right (turns out: No, they did not know this.) The band (for the record: Levine, along with Jesse Carmichael on keys and rhythm guitars; Mickey Madden on bass; James Valentine on lead and rhythm guitar; Matt Flynn on drums; and then PJ Morton and Sam Farrar on assorted other keys, MPCs, and filigree) have always had a shrewd and easy touch with soft rock, and opener “Best 4 U” reasserts their dominance here. The keys twinkle with a hint of wry humor; the guitars are there to remind you, distantly, of the existence of guitars, little dots and blobs surrounded by starchy white silence. Levine’s voice murmurs and glints in the corners of the arrangement, and the total effect is exactly as pleasingly immaculate and numbing as all soft rock should be.

The band themselves have always been tight and professional and smooth, and they remain truly excellent at this sound. But this sound alone, regrettably, doesn’t guarantee the kind of chart success that being Maroon 5 dictates. To help scale that mountain, which gets taller every album cycle, they’ve pulled several of One Direction’s songwriters into their orbit. That includes John Ryan, a covert pop operator who has landed co-writing credits on an impressive 27 1D songs and who also loosed Jason DeRulo’s unholy “Wiggle” into the universe. He pops up multiple times on Red Pill Blues, from the spiraling wind-tunnel “whoo-oo-oo” hook of “Wait” to the finger-picked guitar of One Direction dead ringer “Bet My Heart.”

Also pulled into the tractor beam is Starrah, whose onomatopoetic hooks on songs like Jeremih’s “Pass Dat,” Kevin Gates’ “2 Phones,” and Katy Perry’s “Swish Swish” pop up here on “Girls Like You” and “What Lovers Do.” Everything and everyone that pops up on a Maroon 5 album sounds somewhat leached of their essence, though—SZA duets with Levine on “What Lovers Do,” and somehow, that slightly anarchic mischief that enlivens and animates CTRL is gone completely. You wonder what filter they passed her vocal take through to render her so inert.

You also wonder, sadly, the same thing about Kendrick, who wanders through “Don’t Wanna Know” sounding pretty confused about how someone of his immense stature should be spending his cultural capital. A$AP Rocky, on the nonsensically worded ballad “Whiskey” (“I was so young/Till she kissed me, like I’m whiskey”), sounds equally lost, a designer t-shirt left in an Old Navy dressing room. Only Future sounds at home in these antiseptic environs.

It’s this utter lack of libido that ends up making Red Pill Blues so difficult to even finish. Soft rock and sex have a tricky relationship, and so do sex and Hot 100 pop. It’s the ostensible subject, or the ultimate aim, of 99% of the material, but actual, physical copulation is a nasty rumor to most of these songs. On “Lips on You,” Levine offers, in a gentlemanly way, to go down on you; the offer might be sexier if the heart-thump of the drum programming and the new age synth didn’t sound like Sting was servicing you in a Pier 1 Imports store.

The mixing on the album was done by Serban Ghenea, a secret-weapon pop engineer who has mixed hundreds of Hot 100 songs. His songs are distinguished by their naked-smooth surfaces that erase any hint of pumping blood. His work is astonishing, in its way, a series of swooping stainless steel curves that mark out our pop landscape. He’s a perfect partner for Levine, who sounds more appealing the more he transforms himself into a bouncing sound effect. On “Help Me Out,” he rackets around the twinkling synths in his head voice, sounding at least as nimble and half as human as they do. He is the perfect coach for a show simply called “The Voice:” disembodied, inhuman, he dances across the surface like laser light.

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