Artist: Miike Snow
In Brief: The touches of hip-hop/R&B influence and vocal sampling that now seem to be a part of the band’s core sound aren’t a bad move, but the lyrics have definitely taken a turn for the stupid. When they’re not borderline sleazy, they’re just downright inane. I enjoy the record on a superficial level, but I don’t puzzle over the meanings of things like I enjoyed doing so much on Happy to You.
“90% of songs are stupid, OK?” A friend said this to me several years ago in response to my predictable griping and moaning about some song that was a hit at the time, which I had deemed “stupid”, was sick of hearing, and couldn’t fathom how so many people would actually admit to liking it. She might have been exaggerating, but it made me realize that “stupid” songs aren’t necessarily liked by “stupid” people. Most of the time we’re aware that a ridiculously catchy radio hit is about something ridiculous, salacious, or just downright bizarre, and that the artist will probably never be able to follow up with a similar success due to the novelty factor that made their one and only hit such an attention-grabber, and we don’t care, because a part of us enjoys quoting the song to friends as a joke, or dragging them reluctantly out onto the dance floor when the song is played in a club, because if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right? (I’m just guessing on that last part. I avoid all scenarios that involve dancing, but I’m not totally immune to the power of a big, dumb, fun pop song.) It doesn’t make us all drooling morons. It’s the audio equivalent of a “popcorn flick” that you know going in will have tons of cheesy dialogue and baffling plot holes, but you’re there to be entertained and maybe that’s not so bad.
I bring this up because I’m tempted to put a lot of Miike Snow‘s third album, appropriately titled iii (and for which “Ay-Yi-Yi” is a totally acceptable pronunication), into that “stupid” category. That’s just my gut reaction to a lot of the lyrics and the overall wall-of-sound, sample-heavy electronic pop approach. I have to check myself before doing so, because I do genuinely enjoy a lot of the music here, as I did on their last album Happy to You, but I’ve shed any pretense of believing that there are deeper layers to explore with this band. It really makes sense if you think about it, since Miike Snow is a collaboration between American singer Andrew Wyatt and Swedish producers Bloodshy & Avant, two men who know their way about a big, dumb, and kinda-dirty pop hook, considering that some of their most prominent production work was on several hit Britney Spears tunes. That’s not a world I normally inhabit, but I enjoyed the mysterious and kinda sinister vibe on their last album, and I guess I confused lyrical obscurity with intelligence, which is the only reason I had certain expectations going into iii. Most of these songs are pretty straightforward on the topic of relationships, either about being turned on by someone and wanting to be in one, or about being noncommittal once one has already begun. Don’t go into this one expecting a lot of depth, is all I’m saying.
Musically, Miike Snow has changed it up in ways that might push their sound a little toward the mainstream. I admired them for emphasizing the “live band” aspect of their sound on Happy to You, mixing a lot of real piano, drum, and drum parts into the synthpop landscape and going to great lengths to reproduce the sound live at their shows, but here it’s seems they’re more concerned with how a lot of these songs will play at the club or on the radio, freely throwing in a lot of urban-inspired rhythms and basing a few songs around vocal samples that sound like they could have been the backdrop for a hip-hop track. That’s not universally true, as a few tracks have more of a pop/rock edge to them, but the bottom line is that you’re hearing more studio wizardry than live band interaction here. Sometimes that’s actually quite enjoyable. At other times it sounds like a misguided attempt to emulate the success of groups like fun. or Maroon 5 – bands I used to like, who I stopped liking when they stopped being bands and started being pop culture funhouse mirrors. Miike Snow seems to have taken a turn in that direction, and the implications of that are troubling at times, but at least on a musical level, I think most of what they’ve come up with here involved a fair amount of ingenuity and it’s enjoyable to listen to.
1. My Trigger
The opening lyrics of this song – “I saw you licking a dollar bill” – may well set the tone for the entire record. There’s nothing explicit about it, but it’s kind of sleazy in a way leaves the listener to fill in the blanks. The next line, “I’m in the graveyard if looks could kill”, is actually kind of clever, and I think the song’s trying to riff on the relationship between sex, money, and violence, with the implication being that a certain woman is hot enough for a man to happily forsake both his money and his safety. Since Andrew Wyatt is singing in a higher range than I’m used to, and there’s a strong emphasis on the piano and vocal sampling (I love the “warbling” vocal effect that comes in after the chorus, BTW), I wouldn’t have recognized this as Miike Snow at first if you haven’t told me. Despite the oddly icky feeling that it gave me at first, I do think this is a fun song.
2. The Heart of Me
Propelled along by another strong hook based around a vocal sample, this is the one song on the album that seems to have a little more on its mind than just the ins and outs of relationships. Wyatt seems to be in more of an existential quandary here, caught between the glitz and glamour of being a touring rock star and the bigger questions of his place in the universe that come to mind as he travels and ponders the beauty of the huge cathedrals and natural spaces he’s been visiting. “Dip into the lake, the mountains shake the fear into the heart of me”. I love how the verse turns a corner and falls so naturally into the chorus right there. As pop-oriented as this song is, I like how they took a chance by not giving this one a typical bridge. Wyatt’s voice is so distorted on the bridge that it’s hard to make out; it’s being gradually pitch-shifted with each line, until it’s so sped up that it’s just gibberish. The huge amounts of reverb are quite effective in echoing how small he feels in the vastness of the universe. Other than the awkward phrasing of the line “I can’t stop this hurtful sh*t from happening” in the second verse, there’s really nothing I can dislike about this one.
3. Genghis Khan
I’ve been really torn over this one ever since I first heard it. On the one hand, Miike Snow has delivered up yet another slice of irresistible, keyboard-driven electro pop, this time with a bit of an exotic flair to the melody to give it that “faraway” sort of feeling. (Is it just me, or do the opening lines of the verse melody sound an awful lot like “Even old New York was once New Amsterdam” from that song about Istanbul that was popularized by They Might Be Giants?) On the other hand, the guy in this song is a complete selfish a-hole who doesn’t really feel all that attracted to the girl he’s with, but forbids her to be with anyone else. He’s admitting to being a complete selfish a-hole, of course, so it’s not like the songwriter is unaware of the implications of the song. But I don’t know, it falls into that uncomfortable space where it’s not over-the-top enough to be satirical and yet it’s obviously not meant to be sincere, either. The line “I don’t want you to get it on with nobody else but me” is just silly in ways that aren’t supposed to be. I’m not sure anyone can get away with using the phrase “get it on” in a song and expect to be taken seriously, unless they’re Marvin Gaye.
4. Heart Is Full
I really like what the band accomplished with this one, musically speaking. It’s one of their most sample-heavy songs, borrowing from an old Etta James song for its intro hook, and marrying a 60-s era horn section with a 90s-era hip-hop beat. It’s the sort of thing you’d want to nod your head to while tooling around town in a low-rider, I guess. Whether that sound is believable at all for two dudes from Scandinavia and a scraggly white American dude is another story, but I can roll with it. The big problem here – unsurprisingly – is the lyrics. Wyatt’s in a completely different headspace here because he’s fully sold out for the girl of his reams this time and he’s begging her to stay with him… using all sorts of awkward metaphors involving crime and jail time. I don’t know what’s silliest: Singing “No three to five, you’re doing life” as a way of saying he’s got this relationship locked down permanently, singing “Please don’t knock over my heart” as if she was some sort of a petty criminal knocking over a drug store, or trying to get away with rhyming “heart” and “tomorrow” by trilling the “r” to emphasize the middle syllable of “tomorrow”. It’s just awful songwriting.
5. For U
Here’s another song that I’m really torn on, because the music is pure pleasure to my ears, but the lyrics are just… yeesh. In this case it’s not because of anything Wyatt is singing – it’s because he brought in Charlie XCX to sing the hook and apparently let her take over the lion’s share of the songwriting duties, which leads to a rather inane chorus centered on the generic sentiment “I’ll be there for you” (and if you guessed this would rhyme with something about her being true, you win a prize!) Even worse, she classes it down further by remarking “When we f*ck, we leave the lights on” not long after Wyatt hands off the first verse to her. What little we hear of Wyatt here, I enjoy, due to the sinister and detached effect on his voice and how it deliberately clashes with the up-tempo club beat and the insanely chopped up vocal sample that makes the entire song feel so jittery and irresistibly fun. Even given what I’ve heard on the record so far, I wouldn’t have expected anything with this much sheer momentum to it. The superficial listening pleasure I get out of this one probably trumps anything else on the album. It just sucks that Charlie XCX comes across as a low-rent Gwen Stefani here.
6. I Feel the Weight
This is exactly how you don’t want to start up Side B of an album. It’s slow, rather unimaginative in the percussion department, and it has way too much Autotune for its own good. I don’t say that to suggest that Autotune is quite bad – electronic artists in Miike Snow’s vein often use it to capture a certain mood rather than to correct mistakes, and that can be enjoyable, but here it takes one of the most sincere songs on the album and catapults it headlong into the uncanny valley. I like the overall ambience provided by the keyboards and a childlike vocal sample (which I think is a pitch-shifted vocal sung by one of the other guys in the band, if you can believe that), but the song just trudges along and it’s just not that enjoyable to listen to. I get that a guy’s in the doldrums over realizing the spark has gone out in a relationship and he’s going to have to end it, but it’s one thing to capture that lifeless sense of boredom in a way that is engaging to the listener, and it’s another thing to actually bore the listener.
7. Back of the Car
So much of modern pop production seems to rely on the approach of coming up with a catchy hook, then stripping everything back except for a simple keyboard hook, an 808 drum, and some one-off vocal effects, and hoping for the best. That’s what a lot of this song does, and this is where I started to think that Miike Snow might be doing a bad Maroon 5 impression. Some of the band’s absolute stupidest lyrics are front and center in the firstverse of this song (“I don’t want to be your Bible/Don’t want to toy with your survival” is followed closely by “I don’t want to be your planet/’Cause the world’s not like you plan it”), and I start to get that vaguely icky feeling again when he gets to the chorus and tells us, “I want to be the man in the back of the car”. Pretty much nothing good ever comes from being in the back of the car. You’re either holding someone at gunpoint and making them drive you somewhere so that you can evade the authorities, or you’re having skeevy redneck sex back there. It’s unpleasant no matter how you slice it, so let’s just move on.
8. Lonely Life
There are large swaths of this song where I start to think it’s a generic, easygoing pop song. That’s not entirely fair, because there’s a pretty slick bass line, some interesting keyboard melodies and slightly chilly pitch-shifting on the vocals, but I don’t know. At the end of the day it comes across as a wannabe Broken Bells demo. Generic lyrics about wanting to be there to help someone else feel a little less lonely – an offer that probably doesn’t extend a casual hookup, given the overall tone of this record – don’t really help much.
9. Over and Over
The de-emphasis on live instrumentation on this album means I really don’t see the grimy electric guitar riff coming on this one. It’s probably still a looped sample, but pair it with more 808 drum trickery and I’m immediately enchanted. I love the inspired madness that can happen when you mix rock tropes with hip-hop tropes, and this song seems to be having fun exploring that – you won’t mistake it for an actual rock song any time soon, but at least they’re not settling into a musical rut on this one. The lyrics suggest some sort of subversive force constantly spying on the little man and trying to keep him down, which ranges from delightfully chilly observations “These are the days when the kills have eyes/And the parking meter can tell you something deep/In your sleep” to rather moronic and disgusting ones “These are the days when the ones who do despise you/Will try to take sh*ts on you 9 to 5/To survive”. I tell you, that second verse really ruins the mood. And then I realize that the chorus tries to turn a corner and throw some sort of misplaced romantic devotion in there, complete with a tired “world/girl” rhyme, so we really get nothing out of this song other than that the world sucks but he still likes his girl. So my feelings here are a lot like they were about “For U”. Fun listening experience, but the lyrics are crap, for the most part.
10. Longshot (7 Nights)
I can’t quite place the influence that brings a string and horn section into this one – it’s somewhere between old soul music and Chicago. It’s an interesting way to change things up at the end of the record, even if it’s in service of another kinda tedious relationship ballad. At least this one has a little more on its mind lyrically – a guy’s been waiting an entire week for a girl to make up her mind if she’s serious about him, and she’s basically pissed the whole week away partying from dusk until dawn and blowing him off, so he wrote this song as a way to say “I’m out, and don’t wait around for me”. It’s a bit of a downer ending, and it certainly isn’t an exciting of a way to close the album as “Paddling Out” was on Happy to You, but I’ll give Miike Snow a little credit for trying something different and having it sort of work.
(On the special edition, there’s a remix of “Heart Is Full” with Run the Jewels on track 11, which makes a song of already wobbly quality even worse by adding profanity and shameless self-promotion to the mix. I like the idea of adding rap verses to this song because musically it fits, but jeez, get somebody who will actually add some value to the song instead of just bragging about their sexual prowess.)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
My Trigger $1
The Heart of Me $1.50
Genghis Khan $.75
Heart Is Full $.50
For U $1.25
I Feel the Weight $0
Back of the Car $.25
Lonely Life $.50
Over and Over $1.25
Longshot (7 Nights) $.75
Christian Karlsson (aka Bloodshy)
Pontus Winnberg (aka Avant)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: