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Album Review: Harry Styles: “Harry Styles”

Album Review: Lorde: Green Light

Album Review: The Chainsmokers: Collage

Album Review: Ed Sheeran: The Shape of You

Album Review: 21 Pilots: Vessel

Harry StylesAlbum Review: Harry Styles: “Harry Styles”

Pluggedin.com

Do fame and fortune lead to happiness? Perhaps sometimes. But if the songs on former One Direction singer Harry Styles' eponymous debut are even remotely autobiographical, happiness has proven elusive for him. At least, romantically speaking.

The 23-year-old Brit is almost as famous for his famous exes—Taylor Swift and Kendall Jenner among them—as he is for his former band's chart-topping tracks and albums. But whether Styles is crooning about those romantic misfires or more anonymous ones, what's indisputable is that Harry Styles focuses almost completely on failed love affairs.

Pro-social Content

On album opener "Meet Me in the Hallway," Styles longs for a floundering relationship to be in a better place ("Hoping you'll come around/ … Maybe we'll work it out") even as he recognizes he needs to get to a healthier place, too ("I gotta get better, gotta get better"). A bad breakup on "Ever Since New York" prompts prayer: "And I've been praying, I never did before/ … I've been praying ever since New York."

"Sweet Creature" is one of the album's few emotional bright spots as Styles thanks a loving partner for how she pulls him out of hard places: "Sweet creature, sweet creature/When I run out of rope, you bring me home."

Ethereal lead single "Sign of the Times" might be about another struggling relationship. "We don't talk enough," Styles tells someone close to him. "We should open up." But it also has an apocalyptic feel to it that perhaps implies a heavenly reunion after the end of the world ("Just stop your crying/Have the time of your life/Breaking through the atmosphere/And things are pretty good from here/ … We can meet again somewhere/Somewhere far away from here").

Objectionable Content

Several songs include allusions to sexual activity. Sometimes it's fairly subtle. Elsewhere, Styles' references to sex are about as plain as they could be: "It turns out she's a devil between the sheets" ("Only Angel"). And album closer "From the Dining Table" finds him singing about masturbation and awakening in bed with a woman who resembles another he still pines for ("Woke up the girl who looked just like you/I almost said your name"). "Two Ghosts" describes two split-up lovers who are now emotionally hollowed-out shells of their former selves ("We're just two ghosts standing in the place of you and me/Trying to remember how it feels to have a heartbeat").

On "Kiwi," a hard-living ex-lover ("She worked her way through a cheap pack of cigarettes/Hard liquor mixed with a bit of intellect") tells the song's narrator that she's pregnant with his child, but she's unwilling to give him in any say regarding what happens next ("Oh, I think she said, 'I'm having your baby, it's none of your business'"). "Carolina," meanwhile, tells the story of another young woman who "gets into parties without invitations" and apparently knows her way around alcohol pretty well ("There's not a drink that I think could sink her"). When Styles repeatedly says, "She's a good girl/She's such a good girl," it's pretty clear that his description is tinged with ironic sarcasm.

Summary Advisory

Harry Styles' debut is as melancholy and muted as his former band's love songs were, at times, earnest and enthusiastic. Freed from the formulaic constraints of the boy band template, Styles has chosen to tell tales of haunting failed romances instead of happily, sappily flourishing ones. Indeed, Styles has swapped out One Direction's sweetness and saccharine for nicotine and morphine in his attempt to dull the ache of emo emptiness, a dispirited vibe that pervades most of the tracks here. "Just take the pain away," he pleads on "Meet Me in the Hallway."

As One Direction's career progressed, the band increasingly indulged naughty double entendres and sensual suggestiveness. There's sexual content here, too. But Styles seems more matter-of-fact about it. In that sense, Harry Styles seems more "adult," perhaps reinforcing the assumption that romance always involves sex, too—a message that's differently harmful than the hedonistic, consequence-free ones One Direction frequently peddled.

That said, Harry Styles' main problem arguably isn't just its sensual allusions. It's also the glum, hopeless feeling that pervades the album as whole. For a guy who would seem to have the world by tail, Mr. Styles doesn't seem very happy with his life at all.

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Lorde: Green LightAlbum Review: Lorde: Green Light

pitchfork.com

At the outset of Lorde’s comeback breakup jam “Green Light,” she threatens an ex: “I know about what you did and I wanna scream the truth,” she sings, her droll voice flaring with rage. But she doesn’t scream—she doesn’t need to. Instead, she reckons with her power as a writer and a protagonist in her own story, dialing back the complex imagery of debut Pure Heroine to flex in a new way. That record explored the anxious teenage mindset that files experiences into memory while they're happening in real time. Here, she understands that songwriting for the masses is now part of her emotional processing (“I whisper things, the city sings ‘em back to you”) but wields her trademark nuance to bury this guy, betraying intimacy in every line. “She thinks you love the beach—you’re such a damn liar,” she snarls, spotlighting how tiny pretensions can feel as treacherous as full-blown betrayal, then multiplies her voice into a skittish falsetto chorus that mocks her ex’s fear of intensity: “Did it frighten you/How we kissed when we danced on the light-up floor?”

The fear is not one she shares; instead, this rupture only enhances Lorde’s openness to possibility. “I hear sounds in my mind/Brand new sounds in my mind,” she sings coolly, as rapturous house piano soundtracks her search for the green light that’ll help her get over this relationship. To Lorde, raging synesthete, green equals transcendence. (She once explained that her early single “Tennis Court” was initially “the worst textured tan color” until a shift made it change to “all these incredible greens overnight!!!”) Different hues ripple through her catalog, but the euphoria of “Green Light” is a new look for this 20-year-old who first appeared as a shadowy teenaged mystic. She doles it out carefully, true to her inability to find closure. But when it hits, she’s radiant.

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The Chainsmokers: CollageAlbum Review: The Chainsmokers: Collage

The massive lite-EDM duo the Chainsmokers portray themselves as hilariously repugnant caricatures, and on Collage, they paint a photorealist portrait of their manspread over the charts.

Bret Easton Ellis recently said if he were to rewrite American Psycho for modern times, he’d change the setting from late-’80s New York to today’s Silicon Valley, and his psychotic anti-hero Patrick Bateman would haunt the offices of a startup. In this updated version, Bateman probably spends his weekends cruising through Northern California in his Tesla Roadster for getaways to Napa, and presumably makes regular trips to Burning Man. As he drives his sports car with wanton abandon, the speakers rumbling with bass, I like to imagine he’s listening to the lite-EDM duo the Chainsmokers. On some balmy day somewhere in the Valley, he has perhaps downloaded their latest release, Collage EP, onto his smartphone to enjoy at his leisure. And he is listening to them not only because everyone in the country is (they’ve dominated the Billboard chart this year with three songs in the top 10, each for multiple weeks on end), but because the DJs Drew Taggart and Alex Pall, on a fundamental level, would be his people: bros in the prime of life, and caricatures of society’s most reviled.

If charts are the most reliable reflection of who the most powerful artists in the country are, the Chainsmokers are without a doubt kings of the hill. Yet, unlike any of their peers, even in the world of festival-ready EDM, Pall and Taggart have lent their full-throated support to the tech-bro lifestyle and all its connotations. They speak in the garbled lingo of “iterating” and “disrupting” culture. They preview bits and pieces of songs on Snapchat, and use Hype Machine as a market research tool to hone in on an audience. They wonder aloud about the “return-on-investment” and “reach” their relationship with the press warrants. When networking with Calvin Harris, they say they “basically brain-raped him” with their inquiries and curiosity.

Yet, they don’t want you to forget they are red-blooded males.

All of this is to say, they have painted themselves as hilariously repugnant and horribly fascinating all at once. Moral turpitude and coarse language withstanding, they are still massively popular, and they themselves are not on trial—the music they make is. With Collage, they paint a photorealist portrait of their manspread over the charts.

Collage conveniently collects the group’s biggest from the year, and each of these songs works on a finely tuned algorithm. The recipe for a Chainsmokers song is basically two parts airy hook, one part lilting female vocal, and a few dashes of saccharine melancholy and sugary synths. Aesthetically they are close cousins to Calvin Harris’ poptronica and Kygo’s soporific trop-house, but their song structure borrows from forebears like Deadmau5 and Avicii. They’ll still use drops, but they have softened the edge of that serotonin spike by highlighting choruses and melody in pastel color. It makes their music instantly familiar and malleable, and thus radio-friendly.

Take “Closer,” for example, their biggest song and a duet between Drew Taggart and the alt-pop singer Halsey. The song derives its power from a sleek and simple chord progression that mirrors the song’s chorus (“We ain’t never getting older”), and borrows heavily from the Fray’s mid-2000s soft-banger “Over My Head.” The chord progression reinforces the chorus, as if it were humming behind Taggart in unison. The song’s narrative is relatable and anthemic but intimate-sounding: A man meets an ex at a party, hooks up, but then remembers why he hated her in the first place. The millennial populism of the lyrics (“Stay and play that Blink-182 song/That we beat to death in Tucson, okay”) make the track feel manically personal. Add in a little bit of sneering class resentment and conspicuous consumption (“So, baby, pull me closer/In the backseat of your Rover/That I know you can’t afford”) and you’ve got a giant hit on your hands. It’s undeniable—powerfully catchy and easy to whistle, with a light veneer of sad-boy sweetness covering EDM’s biting aggression.

Elsewhere they are more faceless, feeding off of the energy that a series of female vocalists gives to their tracks. Alex Pall has said that his main function in the group is as A&R, booking guests for individual songs and tailoring each one to fit a different demographic. With Daya, they crudely masquerade as the xx in “Don’t Let Me Down,” and (in their parlance) put forward “LMFAO with better clothes” in “Inside Out” (featuring Charlee). In each case, they find a different route to the reptilian brain, stripping back the McMansion architecture of an EDM song and redecorating with items procured from Anthropologie.

Perhaps, what is most interesting about the Chainsmokers is the cynicism of their approach. Their music is essentially an accretion of trends, a packet of market research. EDM’s boom-and-bust cycle has come to an end, and they’ve weathered the drought, presenting themselves as part of a lovably hateable lifestyle brand that grips the nation’s young and powerful. One thing about cynics is they tend to survive, and Chainsmokers seem engineered above all for survival.

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Ed SheeranAlbum Review: Ed Sheeran: The Shape of You

Pluggedin.com

Album Review

What does romance look like in 2017?

British singer Ed Sheeran's answer to that question starts with drinking at a bar. Flirting leads to a casual-but-passionate hookup.

From there, it's off to … a first date.

For anyone looking for love (or just lust), Sheeran begins his song with this pragmatic counsel. "The club isn't the best place to find a lover/So the bar is where I go."

Right, then.

At the pub, Sheeran can toss drinks down with his mates ("Me and my friends at the table doing shots") and, apparently, just wait for his Jedi-like magnetic appeal to pull in an attractive, would-be hookup partner, preferably an aggressive woman who's willing to take all the risk while Ed just sits there passively waving his hand like Obi-Wan: "Come over and start up a conversation with just me/And trust me that I'll give it a chance now."

Right, Trust me.

Soon he's instructing her on what she should say to him: "Say, 'Boy, let's not talk too much/Grab my waist and put that body on me.'"

To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi again, "I'm the guy you're looking for."

Sheeran's mastery of metaphysical barroom alchemy yields pay dirt. "And last night you were in my room/And now my bedsheets smell like you." Then there's this oft-repeated couplet: "Oh I, oh I, oh I, oh I/I'm in love with your body."

Sheeran cuts through the pretense, not even pretending interest in this woman as a person initially. It's all about her body, her smell, the way she makes him feel: "Every day I'm discovering something brand new/I'm in love with the shape of you."

Now, I suspect most women long for a man who's attracted to them physically. But I even more strongly suspect that a man telling a woman he's in love with her body might not be received quite as the compliment perhaps Sheeran intends it to be. A woman wants to be loved for who she is—as a person, as a human being—not as a…body.

Ed Sheeran may be so caught up in his own sweet-talkin' Jedi awesomeness here that he really thinks he's communicating something affirming to his pretty new lover. But what he's really telling her is that she's an object that makes him happy on his objectifying terms.

Getting Things Backwards

Given all that, I was a bit surprised when Sheeran later describes pursuing an actual relationship to go with all the sex he's so intoxicated by: "One week in, we let the story begin/We're going out on our first date." Which, apparently, means that the first week of body-loving trysts didn't count for much—and that they certainly weren't dates. So Sheeran and his partner have one of those, now, too, where they begin to discover some common ground: "You and me are thrifty/So go all you can eat/ … We talk for hours and hours about the sweet and the sour/And how your family is doing OK."

Sheeran does deserve credit here for moving past a casual, "meaningless" hookup (or several of them, perhaps) into something approximating a real relationship: talking. Eating. Sharing. Telling their stories. These are good things, natural stair steps in a gradual process of becoming more emotionally intimate with someone over time.

In the context of marriage, sexual intimacy becomes an outward, physical expression of a beautiful relational reality of love and trust that's already been forged (and hopefully tested, too) through that emotional bonding process. But what happens when things get turned around? Is that a firm foundation for trust and longevity?

Lasting Love or Train Wreck?

Unhooked from a biblical understanding of the purpose and place of sexual expression as God designed and intended it, our mainstream secular culture sees no problem with starting a relationship via physical intimacy, then perhaps moving toward the emotional kind. One's just as good as another, many today might argue, and relational growth can grow in either direction.

But Ed Sheeran is doing more than just mirroring that approach to love and sex. He's modeling it, too, reinforcing it, suggesting to his listeners that this kind of behavior is just fine and likely to lead to lasting love—rather than a train wreck of regret just waiting to jump off the tracks for one or both of these lovers should all that body-shape infatuation one day dissipate.

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21 PilotsAlbum Review: 21 Pilots: Vessel

Pluggedin.com

As a general rule, we usually don't review albums that came out four years ago. Then again, albums released four years ago usually aren't still in the Top 40, either. Twenty One Pilots' 2013 effort, Vessel, defies both of those general rules.

Over the last couple of years, the two guys who comprise Twenty One Pilots—Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun—have steadily climbed from obscurity in Ohio to the summit of the alt-pop mountain. Not only is the band's latest effort, Blurryface, still parked in the Top 10 after 86 weeks on the chart, Vessel keeps sailing along, too. As of this writing, it's notched 125 weeks on the Billboard 200.

So we decided to go back and review it. And I'm glad we did, because these 12 tracks—which go from sounding more than a little like Eminem one moment to being reminiscent of My Chemical Romance or even Owl City the next—are packed with psychological and spiritual insights … amid some deep emotional struggles.

Pro-social Content

"Holding onto You" is almost certainly about God: "You are surrounding all my surroundings/ … And I'll be holding onto you." The song finds the guys saying no to their fleshly impulses in an echo of 1 Corinthians 9:27 ("I'm taking over my body/ … And it seems a lot like flesh is all I got/Not anymore, flesh, out the door/Swat") as well as controlling their thoughts, a parallel allusion to 2 Corinthians 10:5 ("Tie a noose around your mind/Loose enough to breathe, fine, and tie it/To a tree. Tell it, 'You belong to me/This ain't a noose, this is a leash/And I have news for you: You must obey me'").

"Ode to Sleep" finds the band wondering why things are so much easier in the daytime. There's a nighttime battle with devilishly accusatory voices ("I swear I heard demons yelling"). But there's also determination not to give in. "I'll stay awake," we hear, "'Cause the dark's not taking prisoners tonight." Elsewhere, the song talks about an ongoing need for forgiveness, using lyrics that allude to Peter's three denials of Christ: "I'm not free, I asked forgiveness three times/Same amount that I denied, I three-time MVPed this crime." The lyrically dense track also talks of our tendency to deny our need for grace: "The start of the day when we put on our face/A mask that portrays that we don't need grace." Similar themes of overcoming internal darkness fill "Semi-Automatic," with the band declaring, "I will rise and stand my ground/Waiting for the night's return."

That internal battle continues on "Migraine." We hear a stark reference to suicidal thoughts ("Sundays are always my suicide days/I don't know why they always seem so dismal"), but that admission is followed by multiple lines that describe holding on to perseverance and hope: "Shadows will scream that I'm alone/But I know we've made it this far, kid/ … Life has a hopeful undertone."

"Car Radio" says a guy's stolen car radio has resulted in silence that forces him to ponder his life: "Now I just sit in silence/Sometimes quiet is violent/… I hate this car I'm driving/There's no hiding for me/I'm forced to deal with what I feel/There is no distraction to mask what is real." Later, the song affirms, "Peace will win/And fear will lose/There's faith and there's sleep/We need to pick one, please, because/Faith is to be awake/And to be awake is for us to think/And for us to think is to be alive."

"House of Gold" finds a son longing to care for his widowed mother in her old age. "Screen" poignantly talks of how hard it is to tell people the truth about ourselves, even those to whom we're supposedly the closest. Twenty One Pilots revisits those themes again in "Fake You Out." That track, and "Guns for Hands," both reference suicidal temptations as well. But the latter rightly says part of the solution for such isolating, damaging thoughts is to seek out community ("Together, let's breathe/ … Let's all go outside and join hands").

Album closer "Truce" begins, "Now the night is coming to an end/ … The sun will rise, and we will try again." The song admits the eventual reality of death, but also warns that death isn't something to be pursued or embraced prematurely ("Stay alive, stay alive for me/You will die, but now your life is free").

Objectionable Content

References to suicide are never glorified or romanticized; that grievous decision is consistently rejected and resisted. Still, it's possible that the band's lyrics about this serious subject could be taken out of context and heard incorrectly as a suggestive nod to that choice.

"Ode to Sleep" includes the self-recriminating line, "Metaphorically, I'm a whore, and that's denial number of four." More desperate struggles fill "The Run and Go," where a young man confesses to his father, "Pa, I'm not the one you know, you know/I have killed a man and all I know." I suspect we're meant to interpret that line metaphorically, but that's not completely clear.

Summary Advisory

Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun don't shy away from confessing some tough things and diving into hard subject matter. It's clear from start to finish that one (or perhaps both) of these young men have battled mightily with depression and its seductive handmaiden, suicide.

That said, it's equally (albeit subtly) obvious that their response to those struggles has been shaped by their faith, that their spiritual convictions arm them to do battle with the darkness within. Because of that counterbalancing influence, Twenty One Pilots ultimately delivers a message of honesty, hope and determination to young fans who might be quietly grappling with the same things.

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