The worst thing about the new Chainsmokers album, “Memories…Do Not Open,” is that it’s not even a particularly interesting sort of bad. While I’ve never been a fan of the EDM duo’s prior work, I’ve had a sort of horrified fascination with its ability to make compelling pop music, most notably on last year’s inescapable juggernaut “Closer,” which was not the best song of 2016 but will be the song that 2016 is remembered by.
That song will always be the duo’s magnum opus, a masterpiece of pandering schlock that seemed to be engineered to get a reaction — any reaction — out of you. It referenced brands and specific locations with all the subtlety of a 40-something marketer trying to advertise to millennials, and the jackhammer synth line that drove its hook was maddening in its simplicity, but it was the sort of song that demanded your attention, the same way a fire alarm or a crying child does.
With “Closer,” The Chainsmokers perfected their art of throwing every possible hook or annoyance at you until something sticks, the approach they’ve developed since they burst, fully formed, onto the scene with 2014’s “#SELFIE.” Since that misbegotten mess of a novelty song, they’ve streamlined and beautified their approach, remaining all the while annoyingly compelling. I’d turn “Roses” or “Closer” off when I heard them on the radio, but they’d stay with me, unshakeable mental parasites. And their approach worked— “Closer” was the No. 1 song in the country for basically the entire fall quarter, and still sits at No. 17 on the singles chart.
The great shame about “Memories…Do Not Open,” (other than its title), then, is not that it is bad. It’s a Chainsmokers album, which is to say that I was not expecting anything good to begin with. Instead, the album is a failure because it is boring. The crassly compelling songcraft of “Closer” is gone, replaced by equally repellent yet far less interesting work. There’s more diversity in the collaborators that the Chainsmokers work with here, with the features ranging from R&B singer Jhene Aiko to country group Florida-Georgia Line, but nearly everything sounds and feels flattened out, as if they were tasked to make generic-brand alternatives to real pop music.
A key part of the problem with these songs is who’s singing them. Unlike their earlier songs, which primarily used female guest vocalists, a full half of the songs on “Memories” are sung by Andrew Taggart. Taggart, who makes up half of The Chainsmokers, sang lead on “Closer,” which is perhaps why he gets so much of the spotlight here. But even on that song, he was outshined by Halsey, who differed from Taggart in that she could actually sing.
He doesn’t really improve on his own here, gracing each of the six songs he sings lead on with a smug, listless affectation. He’s a thoroughly uncharismatic presence, aiming for a preppy take on the superstar ennui of Drake or The Weeknd but mostly sounding like a frat guy drunkenly stumbling through a karaoke session of his favorite tracks from “House of Balloons.”
The lyrics here are generally terrible, falling into the same boring traps every time. It’s basically all lukewarm, vaguely misogynistic callouts of exes (from “Break Up Every Night”: “She’s got seven personalities, every one’s a tragedy”), jabs at millennial relevance (from “Paris”: “Standing there with a frown and a cigarette/Posting pictures of yourself on the Internet”), and woe-is-me whining about the perils of fame (from “Bloodstream”: “I’ve been drunk three times this week/Spent all my money on a fleeting moment”).
It’s all so lifeless, so dull, that when a guest vocalist comes in and elevates the material from dreck to mediocrity, it’s almost a welcome surprise. Here, singer-songwriter Emily Warren fulfills that role — she sings lead on the album’s two best tracks and acquits herself nicely. She’s not great, but she at least sings with more feeling than Taggart.
Aside from those few bright spots, though, this is a thoroughly joyless affair. (I haven’t even mentioned the Coldplay collaboration, which is perhaps the least interesting song in music history — which raises the question of why this exists.)
The Chainsmokers were doing just fine without having released a full album — they’re a singles group, with no seeming ambition towards long-form statements. This is an album that seems to have been made so that The Chainsmokers can say that they have made an album, and it suffers for it. Every track on this 12-song slog of an album feels like it would have been better served with a little more room to breathe. All placed in a row, they lose any novelty they might have once had.
From “#SELFIE” on, The Chainsmokers have always been wasting our time. The least they could do is make it interesting.
Contact Jacob Kuppermann at jkupperm ‘at’ stanford.edu.