Bastille Goes Back to the 80s But Wallows in Modern Tropes
The first time I heard Bastille, I was struck by two things. First, how well they updated 80s dance pop into the modern era. Songs like “Pompei” and “Things We Lost in The Fire” would have had a welcome place on the dance floor of any NYC club in the 80s. They also sounded thoroughly modern. The second impression I had was how good the songwriting was. A lot of pop music is somewhat thin, being little more than a contrived bag of tropes. Not Bastille. The wrote genuinely interesting song.
Those aforementioned tropes in modern music are what separate good pop, especially dance pop, from the dross. if you will permit me a small rant, I have a list of my most hated tropes. Let’s call this “Everything The DJ Mr P” hates about modern pop music:
- Repeating lyrics for no good reason. This sin as the singer(s) repeat a line of the lyrics two or more times in succession. Think of something like “It’s how I love you/It’s how I love you/it’s how I love you/Love you.” It emphasizes the line but doesn’t do so musically. It is, lazy and insulting to the audience.
- Vocoder. The vocoder is the devil’s invention. Originally it was used to smooth out some vocal wobbles or do something inventive, such as Kraftwek did with The Man-Machine. Now it’s used to create a meaningless synthesized voice or cover up a bad or inconsistent vocalist. It’s especially annoying when the singer has a with a good voice. It takes something good and ruins it.
- Unnecessary F-bombs. Modern music learned the wrong lesson from punk and hip-hop. Swearing, especially the word “Fuck”, is used in these genres as a way to express the language of the streets. Rappers swore to express the vernacular of their lived experience, as well as the rhythms of the people around them. Punks did it to represent something similar, their anger and disillusionment and the way it was expressed by regular people. Both represent authenticity. Swearing in pop songs is generally just for shock appeal or to make the lyrics appear have more gravitas than is true. F-bombs hide vacuous lyrics within disingenuous “street talk”. I’m not against swearing. It’s just that it should express something meaningful.
- Contrive pauses. In EDM, a type of pause called dropping the bass is used to create a powerful emotional moment. Used right, it’s like the relief of resolution in sex. Used wrong, as in most pop music and mass produced EDM, it’s a contrivance that amounts to emotional manipulation.
- Light rapping. Taken from R&B, who took it from hip-hop and reggae, pop music will often add a few seconds of rapping with a light instrumental background. Overused or used at the wrong time, it’s just shameless manipulation. The technique of light rapping is often designed to coverup bad or incomplete music. They can’t think of what to play so they just rap for a minute or two.
This brings me back to Bastille and their new album Give Me the Future. It’s a confusing mix of classic Bastille 80s retro dance music and all the ugly tropes of modern pop music. On the one hand you have songs such as “Brave New World” with its funky 80s style dance club beat, along with a horn and string section right out of 1984 (which they directly reference in the song). Another 80s inspired dance song, this time with Latin influences, is the lead off, “Distorted Light Beam.” The title track, “Give Me the Future”, is also full of 80s retro dance club goodness and a highlight of the album. These songs represent Bastille at their best, pulling the best from the 80s dance scene while adding modern production and Bryan Ferry-like vocals.
The rest of the album, however, is a steaming pile of the worst excesses of modern pop. There is way too much vocoder (although any vocoder is probably way too much). Songs like “Plug In…” and “Stay Awake?” are otherwise passible songs ruined by a vocoder. “Promises”, and “Future Holds” are similarly ruined by the unneeded and unwanted F-bombs, light rapping, unnecessarily repeated phrases, and weird pauses in the songs. “Promises” is especially strange in that it is a spoken word piece that is completely out of place on the album made worse by the use of swearing. Fuck that!
There are some more weird moments on this album. “Thelma + Louise” has this “whoop whoop” synth sound that sounds like someone imitating a vocoder. That’s right, not a vocoder altering a human voice but a synth imitating a vocoder altering a human voice. Very strange indeed. “Club 57” sounds like roots rock mixed with dance pop and… whistling? To the whistling it adds a synth sound that is a fair approximation of a dog’s squeeze toy with a mangled squeaker. Oh, and then more damn whistling. “Club 57” is a candidate for one of the more bizarre songs of 2020.
“No Bad Days” is a shining example of how the wheels have come off the Bastille cart entirely. The song starts with hyperemotional singing, sans instruments, and chants of “Fuck ’em”. The latter is completely gratuitous, adding nothing to the song other than giving fans a change to swear in unison. It has, however, these smooth R&B vocals, and wonderful piano and synth bridges. Once the song gets going, the mid-tempo dance beats make this a viable dance floor song, until we start the “Fuck ’em” chants again. “No Bad Days” had the potential to be a great song, but it is weighted down by its flaws. It is, in a microcosm, the problem with the whole album. There are good songs, and some potentially great dance tunes. It just collapses under the weight of the worst gimmicks and tropes that modern music has to offer.
If Bastille had stuck what they do better than anyone else, this could have been a great album. Instead, they choose to infect themselves with the most awful diseases infecting modern dance pop. The end result is a deeply flawed album that will spawn a few good singles but be remembered as a bomb.