The Canadian singer-songwriter decides that pop music is no place for individualism or high-energy performances on her third album.
It's never surprising when a lesser-known pop singer goes for a cleaner and more radio-friendly approach after a few attempts at personalized expression. Toronto, Ontario's Lights, born Valerie Poxleitner, has done the underground pop thing, but on her third album Little Machines, she's decided to let go of intimate sounds, personal appeals, and unique style in a grasp for universal appeal. She doesn't stick the landing.
Like a lot of modern artists, Lights has embraced the impassioned and feverish sounds of retro new wave and electro, hoping that it can boost the energy of her music and, if she's lucky, spark slow-motion dance parties and pillow fights. Unfortunately, for someone taking on '80s synthpop, Lights isn't having nearly enough fun on Little Machines. "Running with the Boys" has a bouncy and lively instrumental, and the chorus adds a fun, plucky reverberated guitar line, but even with the lyrics, "So turn up the noise / Dressed to the nines / Running with the boys / Your hand in mine", Lights somehow manages to make the song sober and self-serious. Overall, the album takes a similar approach to Tegan and Sara's Cyndi Lauper-style '80s pop throwback Heartthrob, but Little Machines doesn't have a quarter of the joy, satisfaction, or punch of that album. Even Lights' own breakthrough Siberia, which borrowed from dubstep, indie electro, and, house music to create a colorful and unusual pop sound, feels far more spirited than anything here.
In each song Lights performs flat vocal takes with unchanging emotion and tenor, whether singing distressingly solemn lines like, "The loneliest thing in the shape of a fist / That I wish I could bring in this bitter abyss / Is my petrified heart" in "Portal," or charming, optimistic rhymes such as, "We are gonna see greater heights / They'll put our names up in neon lights / Rolling volcanoes in the night / Glowing in the dark like meteorites" from "Meteorites". The lyrics span from awkward, childish emo-isms to bland romantic pop verse, painting the artist as a kind of dispassionate Hayley Williams, but whatever style Lights goes after at any one time, she only succeeds in further obscuring her own unique talents.
There are problems that go as deep as the foundations of the songwriting. "Same Sea" bothers to build up tension in the verses for what would ideally be a massive, up-tempo pop chorus but actually turns out to be more like a haphazard bridge, offering a few pounding notes and some plaintive "ooo"-ing before slouching back into another unconvincing verse. It completely sucks the energy out of every moment of the song, and it isn't an overstatement to say that it utterly ruins it. In fact, almost every song on the album has this issue, with most choruses amounting to either an unimaginative extension of the verses ("Speeding", "Muscle Memory", "Oil and Water", "Meteorites") or a random, out-of-the-blue whim ("Same Sea", "Running With the Boys"), and for a pop album so rigorously structured, that is a significant problem.
Little Machines is little more than a collection of mid-tempo and halfhearted filler tracks, songs that are born and die away with the same energy -- no reconciliation, no evolution. Every track is as good as over after the first chord progression because Lights has nothing else to express. Pared down to an EP, Little Machines might have been easier to swallow, but as is it's so stiflingly systematic that it by nature has no where to go, proving that this is an album ruled by formula rather than artist's intuition. That's fair enough, but these slack choruses and uninspired performances show that Lights can't even get the formula right. Instead of retaining her status as a standout indie performer or reaching for the very best for a breakout radio hit, Lights falls utterly flat on Little Machines. This may be disappointing, but, still, not all is lost; you can still listen to Siberia.