Widgets Magazine

Single shots: Jacob Kuppermann takes on music’s newest singles

Bruno Mars — 24k Magic

Bruno Mars’ newest single is basically just a retread of “Uptown Funk,” except with slightly different 80s funk references. Which isn’t a bad thing, honestly — “Uptown Funk” was one of the rare signs of life in the season it came out, and though it may have outstayed its welcome, it still holds up as an expertly crafted piece of 80s pastiche. “24k Magic,” then, is less expertly crafted. The diminishing returns make themselves most clear in the lyrics. The instrumental, full of gleefully elastic synthesizer runs and arpeggios, is at worst blandly competent, actually switching up nicely during the breakdown/outro. The lyrics, on the other hand, are like a robot writing the sequel to “Uptown Funk.” They’re soulless and insipid — he actually sings “hashtag blessed,” I swear to god. But the lyrics, bad as they are, don’t detract too much from the song itself. They’re excuses to get Mars’ charismatic voice on a fun beat. I don’t love it, but considering how bland the charts are getting (c.f. “Closer,” by The Chainsmokers and Halsey, which is pretty much on autopilot on all levels), I’ll take it.

Grade: 6/10

 

Death Cab For Cutie — Million Dollar Loan

The set of historical events required for this song to exist (it’s a character study on Donald Trump) is incredible. That it’s actually pretty decent is perhaps even more so. Writing music about current events, especially while those current events unfold, is tricky. It’s easy to lapse into preaching about your beliefs, neglecting the actual business of writing a good, listenable piece of music. Take, for example, Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning),” a boring ballad elevated to some greater significance because it’s about 9/11. Even though the project that this was written for, “30 Days, 30 Songs,” is explicitly anti-Trump, “Million Dollar Loan” mostly transcends mere sloganeering. The song is a portrait of Trump’s self-delusion, and though you don’t exactly feel sympathy for the song’s protagonist, high up in a “gilded room/Of gold, marble, and soft perfume,” you kind of feel bad for him. Stranger things have happened.

Grade: 6.5/10

 

Sofi De La Torre — Flex Your Way Out (feat. Blackbear)

Sofi De La Torre, a Spanish pop singer, claims a simple ethos: “Pop Done Right.” Her prior work, especially 2014 debut single “Vermillion,” which received critical raves but little commercial success, lived up to that pretentious claim, and “Flex Your Way Out” doesn’t let her prior work down too significantly. It doesn’t reach the heights that “Vermillion” does, but “Flex Your Way Out” is a well-done piece of downtempo electronic pop, anchored by De La Torre’s restrained vocal performance. Even as the production, a fairly standard mix of ambient synths and hi-hats, rises and falls, she has the track fully under control. The song’s title is simultaneously a taunt and something more melancholy and resigned in her hands. The song’s weak point, then, is Blackbear’s guest verse. Where De La Torre is singular, Blackbear is generic, sounding like a bargain-brand version of The Weeknd. There’s nothing wrong with his contribution per se, but in comparison to the lead act, he recedes into the background.

Grade: 7/10

 

Lady Gaga — Million Reasons

Even though she rose to stardom on the strength of disco-influenced dance tracks like “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance,” Lady Gaga has also shown tremendous skill in balladry, and “Million Reasons” is yet another display of that skill. Co-written with Mark Ronson and country songwriter Hillary Lindsey, “Million Reasons” is a slow burn of a song, building from simple guitar and piano to an emotional peak. During the buildup, Gaga showcases a range of different deliveries, from a sort of talk-singing  to full-on belting at song’s climax. It’s not perfect — the first verse is a little clunky in its construction, and the bridge actually rhymes “needin’” with “bleedin,’” which is a bit too obvious of a rhyme for me to take it seriously. The chorus makes it all worth it, though. Gaga manages to wring out every ounce of emotion she can out of its simple melodic phrases, sounding simultaneously resigned and hopeful.

Grade: 8/10

 

Amber Coffman — All To Myself

“All To Myself” is the perhaps the most serene, self-realized song ever written about being alone and unloved. The song’s gentle waltz and anodyne vocoder harmonies lull you into a certain serenity, but they never hide the fact that “All To Myself” is not really a happy song. It’s a song about coming to terms with your circumstances, of finding in yourself what you can’t find in others. And yet Coffman’s vocals and the instrumentation turn bittersweet or even bitter material into something gorgeous. The first few times I listened to “All To Myself”, I felt like I was missing something — it was pretty, sure, but it lacked the inner turmoil that any self-respecting lonely breakup song should have. On my fourth listen, though, I realized that that was the point. “All To Myself” sidesteps all of the self-pitying clichés of writing about loneliness in order to reach something more sublime. Serenity isn’t often a feeling sought out by songwriters (outside of the realm of new age music, at least), but here, at least, it proves to be an effective muse.
Grade: 8.5/10

 

Contact Jacob Kuppermann at jkupperm ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Jacob Kuppermann

Jacob Kuppermann writes about music for the Arts & Life Section of the Stanford Daily. He is currently undecided, both in regards to his major and towards the world as a whole, but enjoys biology, history, playing guitar & bass, and thinking about the Chainsmokers.