Review Summary: When ambition outstrips execution
The road to Life Support
was paved with seemingly good intentions and, conversely, a lot of scrutiny. Whether Madison Beer likes it or not, her music and social media notoriety are always going to be intertwined to an extent - specifically, in how people buy into her “honesty.” Amidst her massive TikTok following and accusations of being an industry plant, there’s been a lot of skepticism around her ability to carry a credible music career. And let’s be clear here: Beer has every right to make a serious, introspective record. She’s been incredibly open about her struggles with depression and borderline personality disorder, which factor heavily into the music found in Life Support
. But sadly, there are a few glaring problems that consistently threaten to undermine what is otherwise a strong first showing.
The biggest issue with Beer herself is that she wears her influences on her sleeve without having much of her own identity. Her singing is an uncomfortably close facsimile of Ariana Grande’s breathy mid-range vocals, while also taking a few cues from the Lana Del Rey and Billie Eilish playbooks as well. The style is serviceable for the type of music here, but the lack of any distinguishing features of her own becomes quite apparent as the record keeps going. Hell, “Follow the White Rabbit” has her outright stealing the “yuh” vocal inflection that’s ubiquitous with Grande’s work now! It’s a shame too, because Beer is clearly a very talented singer. The intro “The Beginning” (very original title) is a beautiful way to introduce her talent, featuring her haunting reverb-laden vocals over a lush guitar backdrop. Then you have “Interlude,” a largely a cappella number with no shortage of killer harmonies; it actually sounds like a 2021 update of what could have been an interlude from an old Queen album.
Therein lies the biggest conflict regarding Life Support
: the fact that the music itself actually tends to be really solid! I wish Beer’s singing had more character, because the instrumental work that accompanies her is simply beautiful at times. There’s a lot of variety too; “Homesick” features a lovely fingerpicked guitar and pleasant background keyboards, while “Effortlessly” combines harp and deep bass for a sound that’s both comforting and sorrowful. Meanwhile, “Follow the White Rabbit” is packed with pulsating synth drops that give off the feeling of descending into an chasm of soundscapes. Something the album really benefits from is the brief nature of most tracks; they’re long enough to say what they have to say, but then dip out just as quickly. It’s also an effective way to pack more variation into the album; Beer can go from the rich harmonies and clean guitar of “Selfish” to an over-the-top dance-pop spectacle like “BOYSHIT” pretty easily. And speaking of Queen, just listen to “BOYSHIT” and compare it to their 1982 hit “Body Language”... there are some interesting similarities between the two.
As for the lyrics, they’re a very mixed bag. I understand that Beer wanted to use the album to shine a light on her mental struggles, but there’s simply not enough emphasis placed on them. She tries to split the difference between her struggles and a separate set of generic relationship lyrics, and it causes a really jarring tonal disconnect at times. Whenever she ditches the romantic stuff and sticks with the darker talk of mental health, it always makes for more compelling material. “Stained Glass” is a great example of this, speaking on both Beer’s internal issues and the public scrutiny that often exacerbates them. But the best showing of her more introspective side is “Homesick,” a song about alienation and detachment that hits a lot of the same notes as Radiohead’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien” - even if there’s a completely unnecessary Rick and Morty bit at the end.
Madison Beer’s first full-length affair often plays out like a giant showcase of missed potential. However, because of its most effective moments, this one comes with a begrudging recommendation. The vocals might be too derivative and the lyrics might be too inconsistent, but the level of ambition in the music here is well beyond most pop debuts. Plus, we could always use more records that talk about mental health in such frank and honest terms, even if Beer loses the plot on occasion. Proceed with caution, but proceed nonetheless.