Music

Athlete: Black Swan

There is no denying a certain haunting quality to the music but it's a haunting largely carried out by the ghosts of pop's past. Annoyingly, these are songs which will get into your head with their formulaic perfection


Athlete

Black Swan

Label: Polydor/Original Signal
US Release Date: 2010-03-02
UK Release Date: 2009-08-24
Website
Artist Website
Amazon
iTunes

"Classic" is a confusing term when applied to cultural products and practices, and music is no exception. In popular music discourse the word can often mean tried, tested, conventional, and unoriginal. Confusingly, it can also signify an avoidance or transcendence of norms. Athlete fall into the former, rather than the latter category. Over the course of three studio albums released between 2003 and 2007, they proved themselves very competent at producing post-Coldplay emotive rock, their guitar-and-drums aesthetic enhanced by occasional electronic bleepery. The latter was included presumably to give a contemporary edge to the "classic" quality of the songs, but bleepery in rock has been around for so long now that it has itself acquired a sense of the classic.

Their fourth album, Black Swan, does not take the group's sound any further forward. Having settled on the kind of dynamic favored by Coldplay, Snow Patrol, and Keane, they seem to have focused their efforts instead on packing as many emotional gearshifts as possible into each of these ten tracks. Singer-guitarist Joel Pott works the rasp of his voice against the shifting moods of the instrumental backdrop. It's an effective tool and certainly carries enough emotional gravitas (and throat gravel) to deliver sincerity. Each song comes wrapped in a vocal patina that signals hearts being worn on sleeves, securities and insecurities being shared, feelings stripped down to their intense essence. On some tracks strings rise in the background to usher the point home. The performative emotionalism is deafening, the glare of raised mobile phones in future stadia blinding.

There is no denying a certain haunting quality to the music, but it's a haunting largely carried out by the ghosts of pop's past. The opening lines of "The Getaway" echo a facet of 1980s pop-rock balladry that is at once utterly familiar (there really was a track that began like that ... wasn't there?) and tantalizingly un-pin-downable (perhaps a Freudian screen memory, something we're sure existed but which is really the resulting formation of subsequent experiences). The guitar momentum given to "The Unknown" provides an Edge-like dynamic to the Bono-esque, blustering pomposity of the lyric. A more recent specter, less prone perhaps to memory's imaginations, is the "Yellow"-like guitar attack partway through "Don't Hold Your Breath". More generally, the vocal failure/desperation/emotion/yearning used in this song and many others on the album is essentially that used by Chris Martin. While it may be tiresome to keep trotting the C-word out, I can't recall a recent song as Coldplay-by-numbers as "The Awkward Goodbye".

Then there are the lyrics, some of which are clever and utilize sophisticated rhymes and meters, others of which are just painful. Of the latter, the recent single "Black Swan Song" is a particular minefield, offering such hazards as "when I climb into eternity", "when I parachute into eternity", and "I'm ready for my final symphony". "The Unknown", meanwhile, urges its listener to "let your world be wide open", "your fears be blown apart", and "your voice be louder than bombs". Perhaps these words are no sillier than those found in other artists' work, but the incessant sincerity of Athlete's musical approach compounds the issue, emphasizing and enlarging lyrical folly to reveal its bloated stadium-pleasing excess.

Of course, most popular music is the result of certain formulas and one could argue that what ultimately matters is how certain artists perform the requisite authenticity work to mask the ropes and pulleys of their concoctions. A reasonably large constituency seems to be willing to overlook Athlete's particular brand of trickery. For them, many of these songs may prove to be majestic -- life-affirming, even. Even for those who are not convinced, there is no denying that this group know very well how to make catchy pop records. Annoyingly, these are songs which will get into your head with a formulaic perfection honed by skilled designers in laboratory (and stadium) conditions and delivered by fine craftsmen.

Ultimately, this smoke-and-mirrors approach will not do. The smoke is too smoky, the mirrors too reflective of too much else out there at the moment.

4

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Music

Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?

Music

Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.

Music

IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.

Music

Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.

Film

NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.

Music

The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.