When Grimes’ first new song in two years hit the Internet a couple weeks ago, it was furiously marketed as a track Rihanna rejected, a PR move with obvious SEO appeal and rank cynicism. For Grimes’s Claire Boucher, it seemed unintentionally self-depricating. Somehow, trying and failing to produce a suitable pop hit for an established star was some new form of underground credibility? Such is the odd moment we’re in, where the sounds of chart pop have so thoroughly bled into what’s considered cutting edge that there’s hardly a meaningful distinction between the two. If all that meant was a surplus of A-plus pop songs, then…terrific. More often, we’re getting stuff that’s the worst of both worlds: not catchy enough to hit right away, nor interesting enough to reward extended consideration.
The problem with “Go” is twofold. Since such emphasis was placed on its conception, it’s fair to note what a curious, ill-fitting song it would have been for its intended vessel. Whatever you think of her songs, Rihanna’s pop character is, at a minimum, bold and unapologetic. “Go” is, instead, lovesick and tentative in its vocal melodies, meek in its sentiments, thudding and unimaginative in its rhythms. It’s not some great, lost opportunity in the annals of melding indie and mainstream sensibilities, along the lines of Britney Spears almost working with DFA, or something. Its biggest sin is that it doesn’t suggest a particularly challenging idea of what Rihanna’s capable of doing. For a songwriter who’s maintained all along that she’s got the highest esteem for radio pop, “Go” suggests Claire Boucher’s expectations for the genre are actually pretty low.
It doesn’t work as a Grimes song, either. Boucher’s voice—light, airy, thin—sounded at home in early DIY recordings and sort of appealingly disorienting when shining out from all the whirling layers on her breakthrough record, Visions. As a halfway between gauzy ambient music and pure bubblegum, her tone is sort of weirdly perfect. As a balance to the EDM bass drops she’s playing with here? It doesn’t have the weight. If she’s going to cut out her more interesting compositional effects in a bid for a wider audience, she should maybe project a stronger, more confident sound. Roc Nation might intervene on the final mixes of her impending new album to that effect (they didn’t sign her for wispy non-hits). “Go” suggests that she needs the help.
Tom Krell’s alt-R & B project, How to Dress Well, also plays in the margins of pop, underwhelming in inverse ways. Instead of producing rote bass drops or unimaginative hooks, Krell has typically tried to make soul music from too few ingredients, going so far to avoid slickness that he often ended up as a rough, quivering nil. His songs never quite got to the good part. To Krell’s credit, his latest, almost unanimously praised, record “What Is This Heart?” is better developed. (Though the “modern masterpiece” tag its been given is a stretch and a half.) There are coherently produced sounds on it! Not just emptiness captured in heavy reverb with the suggestion of light sobbing to follow! There are committed beats, almost-captivating layered arrangements, and vocal parts that approximate choruses, though don’t quite provide their usual earworm utility. And yet, there remains this fundamental disconnect in How to Dress Well songs that Krell hasn’t remedied, seems determined not to.
The more traditional moves of his new record sort of concede the lack of substance in his early stuff, yet Krell continues to doggedly arrange his songs in perverse shapes that deny pleasure, prioritizing build-up as if it was its own kind of prolonged cathartic release. He earns the prejorative “indie R & B” label he actively rejects by living up to the most persistent negative stereotypes that have been thrown at indie-rock. His music is maudlin, sexually inert, and too convinced of its own cleverness. In a pre-release Pitchfork feature, Krell betrayed his unease with the style he’s emulating, elevating himself above it.
“Like, I love Miguel and his music,” he says, “but there are some things he sings that I would never sing: Asking a girl if she wants to have sex with you because you don’t want to waste your time is a little crass. The music I want to make is somehow slightly more holy than that.” As with Boucher, he seems less enamored with the music he’s drawing from than he loudly lets on. She insults radio pop by producing less interesting music than usual when using it as a guide. Krell deconstructs R & B to the point that he murders its charms, renders his music boring by trying to make it so terribly interesting.
Which is not to say that radio pop and odd experimentation should ever be walled off in separate rooms, prevented from co-mingling, but the attempt demands better balance. A fine example of recent success is the sweltering slow jam, “Two Weeks”, by British artist FKA Twigs, which quickly jumped into the conversation for best songs of the year. Listening to the song clarifies how the latest work from Krell and Boucher is lacking. It has a similarly slow pace to the Dress Well stuff, but uses it’s minimalism to greater advantage, dropping its spare beats just at the point where the barely contained lust is boiling over. Not afraid to be carnal, it delivers desire without quotes around it. The contrast to the Grimes song is even less flattering. While it too has some of-the-moment bass heaviness, that aspect is subsumed in lush, alien textures, where the low-end is less isolated and thus less dopey. More important, Twigs’ level of pure vocal power allows her to be soft and airy in bits, because there’s a much stronger payoff laying in wait. But that impressive technical singing is swathed in warped, unsettling sounds. The song walks a ultra-fine tightrope with grace and balance that’s extremely rare. As a mingling of competing interests, it’s a best-case scenario.
Underground music has long been a bastion for odd-voiced weirdos, for good reason. Perfection isn’t a pre-requisite for meaningful expression, nor should it be. But the conflation of mainstream pop moves into the indie world can have an unfortunate exposing effect, where artists capable of truly singular weirdness waste their time making less effective versions of slick hits by committee, or go out of their way to subvert popular forms that aren’t really broken. Music that’s meant to be purely emotional ends up annoyingly overthought, and music that exists to provide very basic, simple pleasures ends up falling short of doing just that.