Miike Snow has a bit of a problem on their hands.
First off, the basics: The group is composed of a trio of very talented people—singer Andrew Wyatt and the duo Christian Karlsson & Pontus Winnberg, who are perhaps better known as Bloodshy & Avant. While people may not know the name Bloodshy & Avant up front, they’ve likely heard the duo’s work, as they’ve been working as behind-the-scenes hitmakers for years, with Grammy-winning tracks and a host of other awards already under their belt. What’s perhaps most notable about their work is that despite each track’s undoubtedly commercial intentions, the songs they create are also really quite strange and exceptionally well-composed. While they’ve worked with everyone from Christina Milian to Ms. Dynamite to Madonna, they are perhaps best known for their work with Britney Spears. If you’ve heard a good Spears song in the past decade, it’s likely because of their handiwork: from singles like “Toxic” and “Piece of Me” to incredible album cuts like “Unusual You” (from 2008’s Circus) and the absolutely bonkers “How I Roll” (from last year’s Femme Fatale). They are absolutely unafraid to make sonically daring tracks within the confines of the three-minute pop single, which is why when they announced the formation of their own band, the news was greeted rapturously (or, at least, warmly).
Their self-titled debut as Miike Snow, however, didn’t have club-shattering anthems or even the most basic of Top 40 intentions: It was a bit of a home-spun, piano-based project that, despite being littered with dance beats and keyboards, still felt remarkably reserved. While the album was certainly enjoyable and surefire tracks like the single “Animal” helped get the group noticed (and deeper cuts like the mid-tempo electro-twist of “Cult Logic” kept listeners long after), there was always an unplaceable something missing from their sound, one that was hard to immediately pinpoint.
Now, with the band’s long-in-the-works sophomore album Happy to You finally out, we sadly know exactly what that something is: Andrew Wyatt.
Part of what has made Karlsson and Winnberg such effective producers is that they’ve really been able to put emotion in their music, making a vocalist with no audible charisma (see: Britney Spears) actually sound like they’re saying something important or personal (see: “Piece of Me”, which is a strong media-biting satire about Spears’ tabloid allure…that wasn’t even written by her). They’ve even been able to pull off that feat at times with Miike Snow’s debut, but when it comes to Happy to You, there seem to be no production tricks in the book that can save the disc from Wyatt’s complete lack of presence as a vocalist.
On opening track “Enter the Joker’s Lair”, slowly melting synths give way to a light drumbeat and light key plinks, but even as they follow Wyatt’s vocal line, nothing comes from his dry delivery. Even as the track spends most of the time building up instrumental towers with no real intent on using them for anything, it’s not until “The Wave” that we really get a sense of how Wyatt’s voice hinders the group. “My love won’t be saved / We’ll all be staring at the wave”, he intones, somewhat abstractly, but with absolutely no sense of gravity to be found in his voice at all. While Wyatt’s lyrics can assuredly be lacking at times, there are other moments where we get to really hear Wyatt’s strength as a songwriter (see the track he did with Mark Ronson & the Business INTL, “Somebody to Love Me” for proof of that), and on the dark, hazy (and quite good) Lykke Li collaboration “Black Tin Box”, a phrase as simple as “Show me where we used to play” is given a treatment that is cold and emotionally distant—in a way that’s both resonant and moving.
It’s the rest of the album, however, wherein Wyatt’s voice comes off as bland, indistincitve, and emotionally one-note. The mid-tempo oddity “God Help This Divorce” shows how when given only a decent backing track, Wyatt’s distorted croon leaves nary an imprint on your memory, the whole song going in one ear and out the next. Yet even with a track as ripe with emotion as the excellent “Devil’s Work”—with its rolling drums, descending piano chords, and soundtrack-ready horn section—Wyatt continues his eternal hunt for blandness, failing to deliver a performance wherein he sounds even remotely invested in what he’s singing. It’s so strange to hear how detached Wyatt is from the music that backs him, and he unfortunately conjures up memories of one of the most emotionally inert albums of all time: Oasis’ 1997 debacle, Be Here Now.
So what’s going on? Obviously Karlsson and Winnberg see something in Wyatt that remains oblivious to the rest of us, as when the occasion calls for it, they can still turn out some extraordinary music. The fantastic pop number “Vase” uses clap-drums, woodblocks, and distorted synth boxes that sound like they’re perpetually on the verge of failing to create a memorable, immediate pop number that cries out for a better vocalist. The sliced-and-diced piano pop of “Bavarian #1 (Say You Will)” uses whistled choruses and a decent Wyatt chorus to create something that’s both abstract and emotive at the same time.
The best, however, is saved for last, as the absolutely jaw-dropping closing track “Paddling Out” fights for the title of Best Miike Snow Song To Date, as a simple piano-pounding riff is spliced into itself with thundering immediacy, group vocals being brought in for the chorus, and the whole thing backed by a jumpy four-on-the-floor beat that seems to be generated from a run-of-the-mill trap kit. Weird vocal snippets and other effects are spliced in for good measure (including a part in the pseudo-bridge which sounds like a pot of tea starting to whistle through a distorted guitar amp), but what we’re left with is one of the best dance tracks that’s not being played right now.
So while Happy to You is certainly an entertaining pop album, it very much falls in line with its predecessor by showing great melodic promise and musical creativity getting weighed down by a mouthpiece who sounds like he has something better to do with his time even when he’s singing his own lyrics. Karlsson and Winnberg are talented beyond belief—it’s just a shame they spend so much time working with a vocalist who doesn’t sound like he can bring himself to care about his own words.
// Notes from the Road
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