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Poppy – I Disagree Review

January 16, 2020 | Posted by David Hayter
Poppy - I Disagree
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Poppy – I Disagree Review  

There have always galling and regrettable trends in the music industry. Whether it’s hit comedians being convinced to turn their hand to music, any number of fly-by-night dance trends (from the Macarena to Cha Cha Slide) or the bizarre interlude in the early 2000s where an obsession with ringtones gave birth to the Crazy Frog – the charts are always ready and willing to succumb to any thoughtless money making gimmick. The latest novelty to infect the music industry may prove impossibly difficult to shake. They arrive with legions of devoted fans, deep pockets, a huge promotional platform and, bizarrely, the ability to draw millions of Boxing PPV buys.

Yes, that’s right, in the age of streaming-as-sales YouTubers will invariably rule the roost. In the wake of Jake Paul’s abhorrent and painfully unfunny “Everyday Bro” the charts are destined to be blighted by wave-upon-wave of fresh-faced entitled upstarts.

If it all sounds a touch apocalyptic, don’t worry, there is plenty of wheat amongst the chaff. Poppy may have built her following with her YouTube video series, but her music career is sincere, thoughtful and successful on its own terms. Her first two studio albums, Poppy Computer and Am I a Girl?, were largely unremarkable and that, in its own way, is a compliment. Her initial offerings provided stylised, professional and highly competent synth-pop with coy artistic allusions. They may have struggled to stand out from the crowd in their own right, but Poppy proved capable of delivering enjoyable surveys of the contemporary pop landscape.

Her third album, I Disagree, is far more intriguing proposition as Poppy attempts to breech new ground. Picking up on Grimes’ Nu-Metal nods on “We Appreciate Power” without outright aping Babymetal, Poppy dives headlong into the world of sweetie-pie pop and transgressive rock fusion. This is a direction much hinted at in modern music (see Billie Eillish’s counter-cultural sneer) but rarely realized. So Poppy, with some justification, can claim to be venturing out on her own.

The hybrid sound certainly starts with a bang. “Concrete” is an effervescent suite that slips between Eillish’s whispered headfucks, Slipknot-esque contorted sirens, noodling speed metal riffs, a BabyMetal metal pastiche, pulverising death metal riffage and a Beatles harmony via a Beach Boys refrain into the full on camp of The Monkees, ELO and Queen. The studied recreations are really rather wonderful and the pacing is delightfully breakneck (the entire pop/rock time trek takes place in three short minutes). The joy of skipping from one scene to the next is almost enough to distract from the vacuum at the heart of the music, as Poppy’s lyrics prove painfully vacant. She strikes a series of arch postures; she’s tired of sweetness and wants something darker and more violent, she’s disillusioned and wants to buried under the concrete wet red and, ultimately, Poppy is no longer taking no for an answer. Typical teenaged fair delivered with a dead-eyed faux-sincerity perfect for a Tik Tok dance routine, but vapid as anything more than a surface level feint.

The title track is less interesting musically, but works far better as an overall proposition. Poppy might be sloganeering as she apes the cuteness of Japanese Idol culture, but at least her cries are genuinely impactful (“I disagree with the way you are failing to pleasure me”). Surrounded by walls of rip chord nu-metal bombast Poppy whips up one hell of a cutesy-rage storm. The JPop elements are a touch too cringeworthy, but “I Disagree” is exactly the sort of the obnoxious, anti-the-existing-order anthem a youthful icon should be making. The only trouble with Poppy’s bombastic irony laden opening salvo is that you’d swear that she were the snot nosed 18-year-old songwriter and Billie Eilish was the incisive 25-year-old – and not the other way around.

From here on in the template has been set. The poses will be superficial, but when the hooks land and the riffs roar, I Disagree is more than capable of thriving. “Anything Like Me” is a wonderfully spitefully interpolation of Marilyn Manson’s legendary two decade old sound. The glam and synth pop stomp of the music has been distorted and fuzzed out and Poppy provides a sly contrast to the bombast with a sweet and vulnerable acoustic outro. This is a trick Poppy will repeat ad nauseum. She opts against following in Vampire Weekend’s footstep by serving up radical juxtaposition, where she draws at the tonal ties that bind between seemingly divergent sounds. Instead Poppy deals in stark, barely reconciled opposites: a switch is flipped and the transition from delicacy to brutality is near instantaneous. “Fill The Crown” teases a potential hybrid as her saccharine vocal duet with a metal howl, but it’s a fleeting thrill. The quiet and loud elements are cordoned off, only connected by a flatulent electronic sequence and some pinched harmonics.

Truth be told, Poppy music is at its best and fully resolved when she ditches the jarring juxtapositions and commits wholeheartedly to shimmering pop. “Nothing I Need” is a mournful ditty that drifts with a genuine tenderness accentuated by some subtle 70s guitarwork (it’s the kind of flourish her dreamy pop peers are unlikely to stumble upon). On “Sick of the Sun”, Poppy is in need of silence and space to find the perfect form of expression for her ennui. Sadly, despite the intriguing concept, the track never truly develops beyond those bullet points and is instead dragged out across an increasingly aimless expanse.

Poppy pitches for profundity, but has so little to say. That would be fine if she could maintain an interesting nihilistic posture, but she routinely succumbs to cliché. “Don’t Go Outside” epitomises this struggle as Poppy manages a disillusioned shrug. Her enthusiasm is wilting before our very eyes, but other than stating that she is waving the white flag, neither her vocal performance nor her lyric sheet truly transcends that initial sigh of resignation. Guitars will tower and crumble, her refrain from “Concrete” will return, the check box exercise of constructing an epic album closer will be complete, but hollowness is all that remains. To Poppy’s credit, that is partially the point. What else is there to do when faced with a world where “the TV says you’re out of time” so you “suck the fear in through your eyes”? But the best anti-music always offers a vision or a sound more alluring than that of submissions to the system. Be it The Black Parade, a “Shady Lane” or “Anarchy In The UK”, an aesthetic can be an alternative, but there has to be meat on the bones and a fundamental feral believability even to the act of dropping out.

Despite its failings I Disagree is at its best when the guitars are slamming and Poppy is raging. “BLOODMONEY” might be ungodly annoying and excruciatingly obvious, but at least this chop and screwed monstrosity dares to slice skin and threatens genuine transgression. Poppy knows how to have fun and even the tedious Grimes’ aping “Sit/Stay” is buoyed by a beautifully understated and addictive chorus that transcends its muddied and muddled mess of a verse. There are fleeting glimpses of a Poppy willing to stick her neck out and draw the blood of her opponents (“never forget the excesses of a man, because the grabbing hands always grab what they can”), but these moments of genuine rock and roll rebellion pale in comparison to the onslaught of meaningless look book poses and vocal affectations. I Disagree is empowerment as sloganeering. It is certainly effective in places, but would have been better served by stronger narratives and less nu-metal bluster.

Given this lack of emotional depth, it’s a shame that Poppy doesn’t embrace her most bonkers extremes more often. If you want to be superficial, stylized and grotesque – go for it whole hog. Ditch allusions to profundity and just unashamedly wile out. “Bite Your Teeth” might be the worst and best track on I Disagree for this very reason. It’s just an onslaught of ideas, screams, crunching guitars and blood letting in an attempt to feel something (anything!). There’s an elegant and palatial interlude thrown in seemingly for the hell of it and Poppy appears to be having a whale of a time trying to upstage her bandmates. More madness and less control would certainly have been welcome.

Instead, I Disagree is the work of shrewd professionals: an expertly produced fusion record that strikes all the right poses, but fails to scratch the surface, let alone pierce the flesh and tear chunks. Nevertheless, it is pleasing to see a young popstar opting to synthesise a sound other than Trap or EDM into the pop fold. As a result Poppy’s hard rocking third album is largely enjoyable and utterly inessential: I Disagree is trite, but kind of alright.

The final score: review Not So Good
The 411
Poppy conversion to rip snorting hard rock riffs and agit-pop rebellion is a qualified success. I Disagree is a hell of a lot of fun even if it is a shallow as a puddle. Expertly crafted and well performed, Poppy has distilled both sweetie-pie pop and crunching metal down into a formula fit for the smorgasbord posturing of Tik Tok and Instagram, but that fails to truly work as an act of empowering rebellion (let alone a start-to-finish LP). The postures are picture perfect, but vacant.

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Poppy, David Hayter