Penguin Prison's second album is serviceable dance-pop, but lacks personality.
Lost in New York, Penguin Prison’s second album, is perfectly serviceable. Chris Glover, Penguin Prison’s multi-hyphenate sole member, has made a record that evokes ‘80s synth-pop without being beholden to it. He’s made a record of electronic pop that uses a wide variety of non-synthesized instruments, and yet he’s made a record of catchy pop songs that nevertheless manage to be mostly forgettable. Lost in New York is a record that’s made interesting because it works so hard to be bland, yet occasionally fails.
Let’s be clear; it's not as if Glover is intentionally trying to be bland. But he is building pop songs that are so smoothed-out that they lack a strong point of view. Musically, using 1980s synth-pop as a template is just about the safest choice a pop musician can make right now. It hearkens back to the days of the Thompson Twins and the Human League while it simultaneously is a sound that will be familiar to kids currently listening to Taylor Swift, Calvin Harris, or Iggy Azalea. And Glover is savvy enough not to go full-‘80s here. The synth tones and clean guitar lines recall that sound without slathering Penguin Prison’s music in the multiple layers of ‘80s-style production that make a listener go, “Whoa, that’s cheesy.”
Most of the songs on Lost in New York are solidly written and could actually be hits in the hands of a pop star with personality. Take second track “Show Me the Way” as an example. This is a song with a strong, danceable bassline and drumbeat and a really solid guitar and synth backdrop. There’s even a nice little post-chorus synth feature that really works. But Glover has no impact as a vocalist, and it leaves a hole right in the center of the song. Take any breakout pop singer from the 21st century who succeeded at least partially with the force of their personality and plug them into “Show Me the Way” and it’s a potential hit. Beyoncé? Bruno Mars? Kelly Clarkson? Hell, even a second-tier pop star like Carly Rae Jepsen or Sam Smith could do something with this song, but not Glover himself.
It also doesn’t help that the songs are nearly all just a touch north of midtempo. Without much variety in the speed, Glover’s ho-hum delivery stands out even more. When he does get around to changing the pace, it makes a noticeable difference. “Caught in a Daze” slows it down a bit and lays on the 1980s feel even more thickly, but it works. The whole song has a gauzy, dreamy feel that goes nicely with the oft-repeated title phrase. On the other hand, the record’s penultimate track, “Sit Down”, gooses the tempo enough to give the song genuine forward momentum. Softly driving guitar lines are given verve when punctuated by distorted guitar chords. And Glover gives an energetic, slightly ragged vocal performance that serves the song well. Similarly, “Stop Moving” stands out because Glover uses an uncharacteristic, slightly nasal vocal tone in the verses. It’s a small change, but it’s enough to make a difference.
As a musician, Glover is a reasonably accomplished pop craftsman. The fact that small tweaks to his basic formula on Lost in New York make a big difference says a lot for how more variety could improve his music. But his lack of personality as a performer inadvertently makes the case for Penguin Prison as a creator/producer of tracks for more accomplished singers. Although the comparisons to other similarly-minded acts like Hot Chip and New York-based electronic-oriented projects like LCD Soundsystem have been made, he doesn’t have the deeply weird streak of the former nor the world-weariness and punk rock influences of the latter. Glover is far too middle of the road to really live up to either.