It’s hard to break from my regular talking points when contemporary artists refuse to move forward with their sound and abandon the reductive notion that analog/organic production sounds better, so here we are yet again with another few paragraphs about how bad modern music sounds.
I’ve been fairly quiet about bands constantly embracing this trend, mostly just rolling my eyes when hearing it pop up in new tracks. After all, just about a month ago I was hopeful that the music world was finally expanding and heading back to a clean, produced aesthetic. But it turns out for some reason that some bands just love to make their music sounds like absolute garbage and I must speak up once more.
The new Paramore album This is Why is what set me off. Paramore, a band known for their glossy, compressed mall-emo pop, have chosen to have their entire new album sounds like the demo tape of a Toronto jangle-rock indie group. I won’t say anything about the songwriting or lyrics because I will not listen to the full songs. For all I know there could be compositionally perfect masterpieces on this record. I refuse to give it a proper judgment because of the incredibly wrongheaded choice to under-produce the entire album.
Dry, sparse, and bordering on minimalist, Paramore have said that this is their ‘post-punk’ record, and insisted on making it sound like it was recorded in a bargain bin studio on the outskirts of town.
They’ve got company on this front. One time ‘biggest band in the world’ U2 have, bleakly enough, decided to throw in the towel on their new album Songs of Surrender and instead of releasing new material are re-recording all their hits in new ways. New ways being the old ways; the new versions of “Pride (In The Name of Love)” and “With or Without You” have both been redone in the same dry, crispy manner as Paramore’s new album.
It’s rather insidious, this sound, because it’s so hard to pin down. Take for example songs from the new M83 album Fantasy. Even though they’re technically a return to the bombast and grandeur that Anthony Gonzalez made a name on, they’ve been recorded in a way that strips them of their power.
This is hugely ironic because his previous album – 2016’s Junk – was meant to be a left field counter to that sound, but it still sounded like the old material. “Do it, Try it” may have been stylistically weird, but the big, clean chorus was classic M83. New song “Earth to Sea” is patently starry-eyed Gonzalez, but the weak drums wholly diminish the cinematic landscapes he wants to reconstruct.
Just compare the drum machine from “We Own the Sky” on 2008’s Saturdays = Youth to “Earth to Sea”. It’s punchy, it’s bold, and it’s present. It anchors the oscillating synths and complements them. In “Earth to Sea” the live drums sound like a rough backing track that accidentally got thrown into the final mix. Even though both songs fall under the same “widescreen neon 80s” umbrella, the newer track supremely fails at evoking the same feeling. When it explodes towards the end it sounds like a muddy mess, a fuzzy facsimile of real M83. There’s no life to the snares, there’s no urgency to the cymbals.
M83 is hardly the weirdest artist to eschew proper production though. Skrillex, a man whose name was synonymous with wildly overproduced noise, has also become something completely different. Those hoping for a brand new ‘broken fax machine’ dubstep anthem on his new album Quest for Fire will instead find a series of weak house beats similar to the work of moody UK producers from the 2010s.
It’s highly unlikely I will listen to the unearthed Linkin Park “Lost” more than a handful of times. But in that handful of times I will undoubtedly be fixated on the sheer novelty of a song that actually sounds like a song. There’s no nonsensical diversions, no experimentation, no organically recorded drums. It’s the same highly processed anguish-pop the group peddled in 2003, a relic in nearly every single facet. Two verses, three choruses, and even an actual middle-8 bridge, just like granddad used to make ’em.
Another pleasant surprise this month was the new song from The National. Taylor Swift’s folksy bffs may end up disappointing me yet, but the first single from their upcoming record is a fully fleshed-out piece of work. “Tropic Morning News” is not a great song – it’s not even a good song – but it actually sounds like they spent the studio money. Strange considering Swift’s recent Midnights was “””low-budget bedroom pop”””.
And then there’s Pink. The original girlboss has historically been kind of a write-off for me, a forever B-lister that often came off cartoonish with her snarling tough girl anthems. Pink recently released new album Trustfall, and though I once again cannot say that I am a devoted fan, I am pleading, begging the music industry to use this album as a production template. The title track particularly is immaculately mixed, a laser-cut diamond of a tune.
Would you pay nearly $20 for a movie ticket to see a big-budget superhero movie and expect to see unfinished visual effects? The mics and cameras wandering into the shot? The actors in Spirit Halloween costumes and self-applied makeup?
As I’ve been saying for nearly a decade: nobody cares about popular music anymore. It’s no longer an art. It’s an afterthought. And until more acts start to respect it as an art once again, it will continue to depreciate in quality.