Review Summary: Not quite lightning in a bottle
Garrett Borns isn’t the kind of guy you expect to make it big. This might seem ironic because, on paper, he’s the exact type of person who’s supposed to make it big. Labelled a prodigy when he was in 7th-grade, on the heels of winning Michigan’s prestigious Golden Key art prize, Borns was still in his hometown of Grand Haven (pop. 10,000) a year after graduating from high school, playing bars he was too young to legally enter as the frontman of the Garrett Borns Trio. He was a local media darling, buoyed by inserts in the local paper and experiencing a burst of popularity after his ukulele-assisted TedX talk in nearby Grand Rapids; the kinds of things prodigies do after their charmed breeze through early life has ended but their dreams to make it big have not. Even with his impressive resume, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say everyone reading this knows someone like Borns.
18 months ago, though, shortly after relocating to Los Angeles, Borns’ path diverged from those of the never wills at your local dive bar. He signed a deal with Interscope Records after being discovered at an open mic event, toured with Charli XCX, and even found his single “Electric Love” playing in commercials for Southwest Airlines. Given his meteoric ascendance, it’s tempting to write Borns off as a front, an industry project being propped up as the sound of indie pop. Were this the case, the most appropriate response would be to write him off, in the same way that inconsequential acts Smallpools (best remembered for providing the theme song of the 2014 US Open) or Capital Cities (Mazda Dare advertisements) were left for dead after their bland arrangements blasted out of the TV one too many times. But there’s more substance here.
Granted, that’s not saying much, so don’t expect anything too substantial. Instead, focus on the little surprises, like the shoegaze-inspired bridge of “American Money,” or the piercing shriek that closes “10,000 Emerald Pools”. Say what you will about the lyrics (my take: vacuous, mostly harmless, distant in the same way as the softcore porn still masquerading as a cover) they were never meant to be the main attraction. That would be Borns’ elegant falsetto. The popular comparison is Adam Levine, minus the cigarette scarring, which seems fair. If you listen with this in mind, it’s there. What separates the two is their level of confidence: Borns lives in the upper register, Levine only claims temporary residence. If this is the new voice of indie, then Berninger beware—bass belongs in 2013.
This is hyperbolic, of course. It’s impossible to ignore that Dopamine
is a pretty scattershot effort; a pastiche of electropop and old ideas—three of the four songs from last November’s Candy EP
are wrapped in new packaging—that still have enough verve to sound new. Unfortunately, the kinks from the previous release, see: the inexplicably awkward transition a minute into “Past Lives,” were not worked out for this one either. Alas, the downside of riding the wave of momentum meant rushing a debut instead of fine-tuning and refining this batch of ideas. This could have been addressed on the cheekily titled “Overnight Sensation”. Instead, it’s about a stripper. Oh well.
True to its name, Dopamine
is a pleasurable listen. The true reward comes in moments like the title track, which strikes a nice balance between Dirty Mind-era Prince and early Passion Pit and lets him show off his voice and his guitar . For now, though, there are only the rough drafts. They’re a lot of fun, your partner probably likes them a lot, and so does your niece. And maybe that’s enough for now. This record isn’t about the present, it’s about the future. However, with no clear blueprint for success yet printed, the future, for once, is unclear. But, if the last year and a half has told us anything about Borns, it’s to expect the unexpected.