Editors’ note: Each week in this space, chart-watcher Robert Myers will offer his reactions to all the new entries on the Hot 100, Billboard‘s big board for popular songs.
Late August on the pop charts used to be what I called the summer doldrums—almost the entire music industry went on vacation, resting up for the autumn onslaught of new releases. Now that singles have re-established themselves as the major form of product, though, and the promotion cycle is faster and more omnipresent than ever, there’s no telling when a major star is going to drop something big. So this week we get new Taylor Swift, new Mumford & Sons, and even something new from country, the genre that still holds closest to the old ways (I mean Jake Owen). No one gets a vacation anymore.
No. 23: Mumford & Sons, “I Will Wait”
Bad as usual, maybe a little worse, but “I Will Wait” has two interesting aspects. First of all, it’s about Jesus. Religiosity allows Mumford & Sons to add a whole new level of self-righteousness and pretension, two things that always give me a chuckle. Their new album is called Babel, so we can look forward to refrains castigating the wicked for their iniquities and detailing the illusory quality of the modern world, all set to a bouncy faux-rustic beat. Which brings me to the other thing: Despite its old-timey feel, “I Will Wait” is structured like a modern dance record. It jumps right in with a relentless beat that, aside from a couple of slow transitions and breaks, never changes or lets up. This tactic covers up the band’s melodic limitations, which are vast, and may well explain its otherwise inexplicable popularity. They’re like DJs at a folkie rave, or a drum circle that can keep time. Call it ADM, though whether the “A” stands for Acoustic or Authentic is up to you.
No. 72: Taylor Swift, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
I understand why people are so excited, but “Never Ever” is not Swift at her best. It isn’t even Max Martin and Shellback at their best. The song is good, and it makes sense that Swift would want to move away from country. But the pure pop format, at least as it exists at the moment, limits her usual romantic and emotional outpourings, and places her in even tighter formal constraints than country did. Working in pop has some advantages, at least in this song, where she breaks away from the fairy-tale romanticism that threatened to become an even worse trap than any commercial format. Moving from country into teenpop allows her to present a less innocent, more mature persona, but it also prevents her from losing the teen girl fanbase her commercial success depends on. Her older fans can grow up with her, and she can add younger ones at the same time. It’s a canny career move.
I doubt “Never Ever” is even close to being the best song on Red; it’s a teaser, an indication to her fans of what’s coming up. That sounds like commercial calculation of the worst kind, but I don’t think it is. Swift’s connection with her audience is possibly more important than her connection with her boyfriends. And there is one brilliant touch: the spoken bit that comes after the middle eight. It isn’t so much what she says as the way it sounds, distant and off mic, like a clandestine paparazzi recording, an audio clip from the reality series Swift’s life has become. It’s an even better kiss-off than the song itself.
(If you’re curious about the country mix, don’t bother; it sounds like the same track with the pop sheen rubbed off, the kick-drum mixed down, and some country instrumentation added. And you can’t buy it. Swift may not be interested in getting together with her country audience much anymore, either.)
No. 89: Future, “Turn On the Lights”
A few of the songs that have recently made the leap from black radio to the Hot 100 have one thing in common: Male displays of emotional vulnerability. Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar have both bared their weaknesses and their desires to positive response, and Future takes things a step further: he isn’t just vulnerable or despairing a lost love; he’s searching for the perfect woman, and he sounds desperate. Sometimes he overplays—there are moments when I worry about him hyperventilating—but there’s no sentimentality. His perfect woman isn’t some glorified angel, she’s tough, and as much of a player as he is. Yes, there are moments when the idea seems ridiculous, but there are others, like the line about staying clean in case this should somehow be the day he runs into her, when this song cuts deeper than you imagine possible.
No. 93: Jake Owen, “The One That Got Away”
Owen isn’t the worst country singer in the world, but he may be the most mediocre. It’s almost impossible to pay attention to his records while they’re playing or remember them afterwards (half the time I can’t remember even the title of this one). Unless, that is, he commits a huge gaffe like the slowly fading, acoustic repeat of the first verse at the end of this record. This old pop trick has been showing up a lot these days, but it makes no sense when the lyrics are mere scene-setters and don’t say anything important. Why should I care how sensitive he is when he can’t convince me to listen to him in the first place?
No. 100: Green Day, “Oh Love”
Now that they’re over their rock opera phase, I was hoping that Green Day would return to the short, pithy punk songs that made them so much fun in the early days. But operatic overreach is hard to get out of the system, so instead the intro to their upcoming trilogy of albums is a five-minute Celtic lament. I was disappointed at first, but it’s growing on me. The lack of a dramatic framework removes some of the distance that made Green Day’s opera tracks stiff and overbearing, and singing as a real person instead of a symbol allows Billie Joe Armstrong (and his audience) to get closer to the song emotionally. Not to mention that the lilt of the melody fits his voice to perfection.