Review Summary: Commercialization at its most polished
Electropop duos always have a quaint story of how the two met, a chance pairing which is inevitably the beginning of a beautiful friendship. In the case of Capital Cities, it was a Craigslist ad, an act of selection bias, that united Ryan Merchant, a producer, with Sebu Simonian. The two began writing jingles together- something which will become blatantly obvious while listening to In a Tidal Wave of Mystery
, which searches desperately for its own version of “Such Great Heights” to score the next UPS commercial- and eventually expanded into full-fledged songs, with both taking turns on vocals. Unsurprisingly, their music is just as vapid and immaterial as “Let’s Go to the Lobby,” but is made by men with an inflated sense of self-importance and delusions of grandeur, creating an awkward grey area of blurred intentions and mixed messages.
Part of my frustration stems from Merchant’s comments regarding lead single “Safe and Sound,” which he describes as “an antidote to the human tendency to think in apocalyptic terms…” Powerful words to describe a song whose synth line buzzes so loud the vocals are nearly trapped underneath and deals in only the most contrived lyrical conventions: “even if we’re six feet underground, I know that we’ll be safe and sound” is one of the many highlights of teenage poetics offered by Simonian. “Farrah Fawcett Hair” is a strange collage of NPR’s Frank Tavares and unidentified voices reading unrelated phrases to the oohs and ahs of Capital Cities, Andre 3000 dropping an ode to ‘American Apparel girls,’ and guest vocalist Shemika Secrest belting the hook. It could be a triumph, a collage of medium-bending interactions united by the threads of synthesizer grooves, but it feels hollow. What, if anything, does it mean? If it’s a comment on consumer culture, isn’t it hypocritical coming from two men whose livelihood of three years was pushing products?
On the other end of the spectrum are the tumblr-baiting songs like “I Sold My Bed but Not My Stereo,” which has all the appeal of the stomach flu and is nearly as nausea-inducing. What you see is what you get here: endlessly quotable non sequiturs like “black is my favorite color,” more synth pulses and 808’s- which are the only instruments to be found here, save the token guitar chords of “Tell Me How to Love”- and a faux-anthemic hook that would be best muttered ironically among friends who resolutely blame the 16-year-old female Twitterati for all of our cultural deficiencies. There are far more of these such songs on In a Tidal Wave of Mystery than I ever cared to hear in one sitting. It doesn’t help that Capital Cities’ bag of tricks is depleted after the first few songs, with the trumpet fanfares, which may in fact be organic, but sound so glossy and overproduced they may as well have been emitted from a MIDI, wearing thin around “Center Stage,” the lack of vocal range and identity apparent after 10 minutes, the downright lack of ingenuity, save for “Farrah Fawcett Hair,” not surfacing until the album has wrapped and your time has already been wasted.
Sometimes you’re confronted with something not particularly appealing, but you’re able to justify its creation by saying “it’s good for what it is.” That’s the reaction I wanted to have when I heard In a Tidal Wave of Mystery
, but the album is just that- mysterious. I don’t know what it’s supposed to be. I suppose if there’s hidden profundity lurking beneath the bland veneer of “Safe and Sound,” then there’s substance to be found on all the other tracks as well: “I Sold My Bed but Not My Stereo” is a satirical indictment of those very teens it seems to be appealing to, “Chartreuse” and its Super Mario Brothers beat is about the chameleonic disguise provided by makeup and a call to arms to reject it and other such societal costumes.
More than likely, though, it’s just two advertisers in way over their heads, finding substance where there is none; making catchy schemes and groovy beats to distract the fast-fingered kids quickly flipping through their favorite satellite radio channels long enough to draw them in. This is the hallmark of Capital Cities’ music: it’s acceptable in four measure quantities, appalling when stretched much longer.