Sunday, September 20, 2020

Review: Heaven & Hell • Ava Max

Despite this year’s hardships, the gears of the commercial pop music industry may have moved more efficiently than they did under ordinary circumstances. Bunkered down while concert venues are still high risk businesses for COVID transmission, artists have been producing more music and releasing it from the comfort of their home studios. Established industry headliners have managed to capture attention without their typical flair: Lady Gaga charged forward with a warehouse rave record for an era without a dance night to attend. Taylor Swift topped the Billboard 200 for six consecutive weeks with an intimate foray into acoustic pop. Katy Perry released, well, a Katy Perry record. All things considered, it’s been a good year to be a music fan who wanted nothing more than new records from their favorite artists.

Finding a new favorite artist, however, hasn’t been so easy. The pandemic has crushed most platforms afforded to new artists for publicity and opportunities to share music between friends. In fact, it seems the most prominent force in music publicity at the moment is Tik Tok, which has a knack for embedding a 30-second snippet of a song into the brain via looped video but fails to blast its meme soundtracks into superstardom. In that way, American pop singer Ava Max is lucky: She not only cut through legacy platforms just before the pandemic began – sleeper hit “Sweet But Psycho” reached the top 10 in America in the middle of last year – but also saw two songs be turned into notable Tik Tok trends in the past year.

With her hair comically chopped at the shoulder on one side and a small group of fans to record every detail of said hair style’s authenticity on her Wikipedia page, Ava Max can feel like a gaudy pop star genuine to a decade ago – just after tabloid culture was succeeded by internet stan culture, and before political correctness subdued the act of stanning to spamming K-pop fan cams under unrelated Twitter threads. Rather, she’s the distillation of the industry veterans who loved through that time in entertainment: She guns for theatrics and stadium-sized hooks that make large (and frankly, extremely alluring) booms to distract from the reliance on songwriting tropes on her debut record, Heaven & Hell.

Max writes music like her heroes did ten years ago: That translates to lyrics that often lack grit – She spends much of her time reiterating that she is a quirky, misunderstood outcast, a tired character in entertainment filled by a rotating door of artists – but it also means that she can produce bangers. Very infrequently does pop music of today produce sturdy three-minute stompers like the four-on-the-floor revival of early Lady Gaga and Britney Spears' second wave, but Max accomplishes it very solidly a few times – like on "Torn," the record's crowning jewel that owes its success in part to that synth sample from ABBA's "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)," and "Belladonna," with its digital synths and vocal line that push and pull like a crankshaft. And she comes admirably close at other moments – the musicality behind "Tattoo" compensates for its criminal metaphor, and “Kings and Queens” is a fine stab at a triumphant battle cry.

Without a careful listen, there is nothing particularly wrong with Heaven & Hell. “Sweet but Psycho” alone proves that it’s easy to be swept into the record; Max’s melodies often latch to memory quickly, and her intense production value is just as recently nostalgic as it is universally attractive to the casual listener. It’s upon further analysis that the argument for Heaven & Hell begins to falter a bit – her lyricisms are chintzy at best, and between thoughts, she tends to interrupt momentum with a new underwhelming riff or two off the millennial whoop. On “Who’s Laughing Now,” for example, what should be a maniacal laugh turns into an oddly sugary post-chorus, while "Take You To Hell" suffers from a similar conflict in moods. Even still, the record rarely reflects its titular polarity: For better or for worse, it provides a consistent level of service to reflect the Ava Max lifestyle of exile and excess.

Heaven & Hell is available now under Atlantic Records.

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