Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Nine Track Mind | Charlie Puth

You know, Charlie Puth is a pretty popular punching bag for critics.

"See You Again," the sappy single pulled from Furious 7 that blasted him to overnight stardom, was shut out of the Oscars. The Meghan Trainor-featuring "Marvin Gaye" was a staple of many year-end worst lists, with critics taking a (relatively enjoyable) novelty song a bit too seriously. Now, we've been handed his full-length, Nine Track Mind, (which is strangely twelve tracks long, by the way) and his critical history has repeated itself once again.

So why does his album currently sit at a devastating 37/100 (ouch) rating on review aggregator Metacritic? It couldn't possibly be that bad, right?

Well, he's a talented kid; after all, he obtained a Berklee degree, produced five of the tracks on this album by himself, and shot to the top of the charts with "See You Again" thanks to the charm of his smooth, fragile voice. The problem lies in the fact that the boundaries he sets for himself ultimately constrict him, resulting in an album that's just more bland than bad. He taps into an old school crooner style and runs with it, much like collaborator and friend Trainor did with her own debut album last year. While Trainor's release didn't fare too well critically either, hers was idiosyncratic enough to set itself apart (and set the trend that Puth followed). Puth's, however, is far too formulaic and perfectly polished to strike listeners as trendsetting or wholehearted.

"One Call Away," his first single post-breakthrough, plays it painfully safe -- sonically, he delivers a simple re-hash of the elements that made "See You Again" an overnight hit, and lyrically, it's unbearably cheesy ("I'll be there to save the day / Superman got nothing on me"). "Then There's You," another of Puth's many tracks that would flourish on adult contemporary radio (a.k.a. white mom radio), is even more painful: "When you opened up the door, my life completely changed / There's beautiful, then there's you." Oh my gosh, gag me with a spoon. And "Left Right Left"? Just flat-out stupid: "We’re almost there, baby, one more step / Woah, left, right, left, right, left / We’re moving on, we got no regrets / Woah, left, right, left, right, left."

When he loosens the grip on his schtick, though, the results are surprisingly refreshing -- and reveal further potential to be tapped into. "We Don't Talk Anymore," featuring Selena Gomez and her new favorite vocal style (it's breathy and surprisingly amazing, if you haven't noticed), nearly merits the purchase of the whole album. A bittersweet break-up song fueled by a looped guitar line and an infectious melody, it echoes the familiar sentiment of hope that an ex-lover is happy with someone new despite the regrets of the former relationship: "I just hope you're lying next to somebody / Who knows how to love you like me / There must be a good reason that you're gone."

"Some Type of Love," one of the four tracks carried over from his extended play of the same name to this album, stands out with its running vocal hums and encompassing chorus despite dancing dangerously close to the theme of Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud" ("When I'm old and grown / I won't sleep alone / Every single moment will be faded into you / That's some type of love"). And "My Gospel," while still conforming to Puth's cheesy, exaggerated ways, somehow works alright; it might have something to do with the (still Sheeran-esque) sing-rapping in the verses.

So is the album really that bad? No, but it really isn't an exciting listen. Showing signs of his inexperience behind the production boards, Puth crafts climaxes that are as thin as his voice and beats that are about as frustratingly repetitive as contemporary a cappella beat-boxers. Moreover, he has the poetic talent of the archetype faceless male teen-pop sensation, relying far too much on his charm in place of true sentiment -- or personality, for that matter. When his downfalls combine, it results in all of the tracks, bar the Gomez collaboration, sounding roughly the same -- so the selection of highlights really comes down to the matter of which tracks have the most ear-catching melodies.

On the contrary, when taken at face value, Charlie Puth isn't the biggest evil introduced to the industry as of late. He's just another fresh face trying to tap into the dedicated adult contemporary and teenage female markets that fall for sappiness and fragility. Fellow critics, both amateur and professional, take note: accept him for what he's worth and don't get too hot and bothered over his existence.

Nine Track Mind is out now under Artist Partner Group and Atlantic Records.

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