Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Voicenotes | Charlie Puth

In much of the narrative surrounding his second album’s release, Charlie Puth put himself on trial – and found himself guilty of getting caught up in the storm of success that came with his breakthrough single, "See You Again." "For the most part, it was just filler," he admitted to The New York Times in regard to his debut record, Nine Track Mind. That, combined with the fact that Puth is a Berklee graduate who began studying classical music at age four and produces a large chunk of his own music, is what made Nine Track Mind more frustrating than disappointing.

At the time, Puth was pop music’s most wanted criminal: He was popular, but damn, his music was downright terrible. Gunning for knee-jerk emotional reactions to the death of Paul Walker, "See You Again" was the obligatory memorial track that saturated the market ahead of 2015's heavyweight Fast and Furious installment. Its popularity predetermined Puth’s next moves, forcing his hand toward a debut album filled with inbred, sterile piano ballads. That album still stands as one of the worst reviewed records of the millennium.

Then came his redemption.

Last year’s “Attention,” an infectious eff-off to a woman who latched onto him only for his popularity, soothed frustrations with Puth. The track, unlike any of his earlier ones, feels authentic and undated. It’s the Charlie Puth that “We Don’t Talk Anymore” hinted he could be. Its grooved bass line and tickled guitar sets the tone for the rest of his sophomore album, a palatable mixer that is equal parts mid-‘90s rhythm and blues and mid-aughts pop-rock. (And when “Somebody Told Me” rolls around, a touch of summery '80s pop and sugarcoated pop-punk – perhaps the only time he will ever graze the strange euphoria of Metro Station’s “Shake It,” and he gets as close as he can to it without straightening his bangs and dying them black.)

Voicenotes, like his last record, is formulated for consistency. Second single “How Long,” for example, just smudges the production blueprints from the “Attention” files. Almost every chorus or post-chorus features Puth’s signature wail, predictable and usually popped into his thin falsetto. The record, though, is calibrated with better intentions and accuracy. He runs a spinal tap on the music of his own adolescence – and is undeniably more effective when he channels his nostalgia ("Done For Me," "Boy," "Empty Cups") than when he imports talent from his youth. His duets with Boyz II Men and James Taylor may be the album’s worst offerings – especially Taylor’s "Change," the record's token political song that ends up as an indifferent, complacent shrug.

On Voicenotes, Puth seems hung up on both his age and his fame. Should one song be the album's statement piece, "LA Girls" and album highlight "Boy" would be neck-and-neck for the title: He's young, his household name has granted him a fair share of sexual benders, and most of all, he is too sensitive for West Coast superficiality. He implies a certain swagger, attempting to steal away a girl from her boyfriend on the dancing "Empty Cups" and claiming to go at it in the sack until the early afternoon on the cosmic-toned "Slow It Down." But his self-revealed sensitivity and the written profiles that have found him “squawking” out the keys of TLC songs like a total band geek and saying he is "hungies" when in search of food may prove him otherwise.

Puth's ballads are still the musical speed bumps on the way to the better parts of this album, making it clear his retrofit into mid-tempo and dance tracks was the natural move for his feathered, mid-weight voice. (After all, there's not much hope in making a Sam Smith-type belter out of Puth.) The production work is sharp and current on the tracks that maintain a healthy heart rate, but never is over-polished or cutting-edge. The stylistic success pulls him away from his association with novelty viral acts and wedges him somewhere between Justin Timberlake and Nick Jonas in the pack of likable, somewhat emotional kids who like to dress up like the playground badasses. It's certainly not a bad place to be for the guy who wrote, produced, performed, and owes his success to "See You Again."

Voicenotes is available now via Atlantic Records.

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