Ours is a culture that celebrates ambition and achievement above most things. That said, ambition is only considered laudable under a set of remarkably stringent conditions, and the ambitious can as easily be cast as abject and contemptible as they can heroic and brilliant. Women, of course, have long been punished for their ambition in male-dominated spheres. So too do we punish those who reveal their ambition plainly, yet who do not “succeed”. I would argue that in music, audiences and critics tend to gravitate towards two types of artists: first, those who shy away from conventional ambition altogether and are perceived as apathetic towards commercial appeal; and second, the pop megastars who set their sights high and very much achieve success. In the middle, the quasi-pop stars are left to flounder. There is nothing “cool” about being a wannabe superstar.
It is for this reason that the stakes for AlunaGeorge are so high on their new album, I Remember. Starting in relative obscurity, the duo released a string of singles throughout 2012 and 2013 and rode Internet hype to the release of their full-length debut, Body Music. It was not until DJ Snake remixed “You Know You Like It” the following year, however, that they finally got their moment in the sun, bringing them newfound attention from American listeners in particular. They are now tasked with following that effort and attempting to pole-vault neatly into the upper echelons of pop stardom.
After all, Aluna Francis and George Reid are not lacking in pop ambition, and they prove with I Remember that they are not squeamish about gunning for the big stage. Whereas Body Music was more varied in tone, tempo, and mood, here they have chosen to double down on the straightforward pop/R&B sound that made for many of their debut’s highlights. While AlunaGeorge are correct in concluding that this is indeed what they do best, the variety and playfulness are missed on their latest effort. Gone are the introspective balladry of “Outliers” and even the relative abstraction of “Your Drums, Your Love”. In their place is a collection of songs that tread the exact same ground again and again to varying degrees of success.
The album’s first four songs are its strongest by far. “Full Swing” kicks things off on a euphoric note, the whole production locking into place with such precision that when Francis sings that her “mind (is) like a machine” she is believable in the best way. The duo proves with this track that a mid-tempo song can still be extremely infectious and danceable. Here and elsewhere, their R&B-inflected rhythms do much more to create a feel-good atmosphere than much of EDM’s compulsive breakdowns.
The run that begins with “Full Swing” and culminates in “Hold Your Head High”, AlunaGeorge’s most direct response to the remix of “You Know You Like It”. Despite tepid lyrics that attempt to motivate but mostly just tread water, the song is a sparkling pop gem that echoes both Ellie Goulding and another DJ Snake piece, the enormously popular Major Lazer collaboration “Lean On”. I’m not qualified to critique AlunaGeorge’s marketing approach, but the fact that this was not the lead single, or even a single at all thus far, baffles me.
From here, however, things begin to get a bit stale. At track five, the album begs for variety yet gets none. Instead, I Remember continues to mine the same structures, sounds, and moods all the way until its conclusion. AlunaGeorge give off the impression that they are afraid to veer too far away from their formula, unsure and untrusting of where that might lead. Many tracks feel like mediocre auditions for a lead single that should have been scrapped in favor of deeper cuts. As it is, the album is left feeling like a play with many actors all elbowing one another to play the same part at once, such that none can succeed entirely.
The lyrical deftness and the biting, psychological observations that Francis brought to their previous album are missing here as well. “You know you like it but it drives you insane / Only ‘cause you know that you wanna feel the same” was a great lyric that dug under the skin of its target, piercing in its cold, honest assessment. There’s nothing like that here: the closest we get, sadly, is on “Jealous”, where she sings, “Don’t act like you’re jealous ‘cause you’re not / I’m just your distraction”. Needless to say, it’s a far cry from what we know Francis is capable of.
This is not to suggest that the duo does nothing to expand their sound or venture into new territory. I Remember is in places fuller, brassier, and more voluptuous than its predecessor. A sassy horn section kicks and jabs with Francis on “Not Above Love” and resurfaces to give the propulsive, electro-big band number “Heartbreak Horizon” its urgency. The strings that rain down on the latter half of “In My Head” are almost, or at least halfway, as full-bodied as “In Da Club”.
These are some of the more welcome new features of AlunaGeorge’s sound; less welcome are the guest verses that appear from time to time, an adopted relic of popular culture’s short attention span and another indication that AlunaGeorge are just trying to fit in with the radio. While Pell’s verse at least does no harm on “Full Swing”, Popcaan’s feature on “I’m In Control” is baffling and unhelpful. Popcaan has done excellent crossover features in the past, as on Jamie xx’s “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”, but this is far from that caliber.
Despite setting their sights high and achieving some good moments, AlunaGeorge sound less confident here than before. In their efforts to catapult into stardom, they seem to have lost some of the adventure and freedom that made Body Music invigorating (though to be sure, that album had its flaws as well). I Remember sounds less like a finished product and more like a brainstorming session, or a collective rough draft, for a single song. Allowing themselves the creative freedom to explore a wider variety of sonic textures and moods will give AlunaGeorge the outlet that their ambition deserves, but such self-actualization cannot be found here.
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