Let’s Eat Grandma’s I’m All Ears felt like a breakthrough, splitting the difference capably between big-hearted synth pop bangers, artful and emotive art pop and lengthier, more complex progressive pieces. All of which formed a syncretic whole underscoring how each appeared in the other. We often forget the roots of synth pop in progressive music, the way Jon Anderson and Vangelis chipped away at the lengthy Moog-soaked epics of the prog rock years to pluck out the soaring melodies, keening synth tones and heartfelt lyricism. It was refreshing to see young players who were so clearly connected to everything from M83 and Kate Bush to Robbie Williams and Ellie Goulding. So upon perusing the tracklist of their new LP only to find not a single song cracks capably past the five-minute mark and, after first listen, learning this is because they have retreated back entirely to the world of pop, it is hard not to feel a bit let down.
This sense of dimming ambitions is challenged by the success of some of this record’s most potent tracks. The one-two of album openers “Happy New Year” and “Levitation” produce a lush and throbbing heart-in-throat sense of pop magnificence, producing the same emotionality of Joanna Newsom in the shell of Bat for Lashes. But then comes “Watching You Go,” which feels trapped somewhere in the space between thoughtful and beautiful art pop and something that might have appeared on the One Tree Hill soundtrack, unsure whether it wants to emulate the prog pop of Mew or the emotionlessness of The Fray or OneRepublic. This sense of waffling between stabs at more grandiose and obvious pop crossover pieces and their previous progressive/art pop sensibilities plays out over the course of the record; even the ending of “Watching You Go” turns back on itself, producing a very Marillion- or Big Country-sounding triumphant blast of neon and laserlight through the fog of youth.
These moves seem, in retrospect, goaded in part by the relative success of “Hot Pink” from their previous LP compared to lengthier and more complex cuts like the 11-minute “Donnie Darko.” Granted, in reality, it likely was simply a result of the pandemic and its effects on creativity, the way we all found the course of our independent rivers changing suddenly, having encounter the unforeseen stones of the global failure to respond to global calamity. It is admittedly perhaps a bit unfair of me to approach this record this way; the pop songs here are well-composed and well-played, definitely sound like songs composed by people and not committee, songs about real human experiences and not endlessly-abstracted events devoid of the contours of reality. The instrumental bridges of nearly every song is a lush and gorgeous passage, even if the throbbing synthesized bass drum against the sequencers begins to feel sometimes a bit generic. The issue for me, at root, is the level of ambition present on their previous LP that here seems more absent than focused, like a chronicle of subtraction rather than refinement.
This produces the frustration mentioned above. The songs themselves come and go, give me melodies and stirring moments, and I think for a moment that I am falling in love with the record for what it does rather than missing what it doesn’t. But then I hit a moment like the developed verses and choruses of a song like “Insect Loop” which seems to abandon its charming heatwave guitars and post-shoegaze pop aesthetic for something more closely resembling a Disney Channel beat. These are capable players and writers; I have heard it before and know it to be true. There is a chance that perhaps I’m just misunderstanding this record and, in time, I’ll be able to look back and see and appreciate it for what it is. As it stands, however, it’s too hard to let go of the image of what it very well could have been and thus hard not to be let down.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.