Glass Animals: Dreamland review – soulless pop where the personal takes a backseat to the proficient

Traumatic and life-changing events inform the Oxford quartet’s second effort, but to what degree? In the midst of all the capably done Top 40 pop pastiches and dubious dips into trap rapping, it’s hard to make out

★★☆☆☆

Maybe unwittingly so, but the conceit of the last Glass Animals album hinted that they don’t have any original ideas themselves. Chief songwriter and frontman David Bayley, during tour promotion of their 2014 debut Zaba, secretly recorded the anecdotes of everyone from fans to random strangers to cabbies onto his iPhone and used them as the basis for the narratives on the songs to 2016’s How to Be a Human Being. In some respects, well, kudos: far better to synthesise the stories of passersby than tell the world how dreary and soul-sapping the mundane side of the touring is or how the service station coffee always tastes like dirt, one of the more novel ways to combat an ideas shortage in time-honoured Second Album Syndrome fashion. But, in another sense, it connoted a shortage of ideas on Bayley and his band’s part, a feeling that’s hard to shake off listening to Dreamland.

Saddled with a very unpromising title, it really ought not to sound so uninspired. By the sounds of it, from reading their recent interviews, life for the band has been, at various points, scary and acutely traumatic, prompting some deep soul-searching: drummer Joe Seaward was hit by a truck in 2018 whilst cycling, leaving him with a broken leg, a skull fracture and brain damage that necessitated speech therapy, relearning how to talk and tackling playing drums again; meanwhile, Bayley looked inward, confronting the macho culture and rigid gender norms which defined his childhood in Texas and, in keeping with Dreamland’s greater focus on autobiographical details, turning his attention to the best friend who brought a gun into a local school many years ago. Thought-provoking, life-affirming, zeitgeist-capturing: these are all things Dreamland ought to be; no longer writing about the lives of others on the assumption that writing about himself would be “selfish”, Bayley’s new perspective on things, ostensibly, should yield illuminating truths. No such luck.

They’ve seized the sonic blueprints of today’s mainstream pop and regurgitated them. If Dreamland had a moodboard, you’d bet your house at its centre, amid the sea of Post-It Notes and thumbtacks, would be the words “Radio 1 daytime A playlist” circled in bright Sharpie red, nearly every single track moulded around the backbone of trap 808s. It’s a consolidation of how they first appeared, pitched somewhere between Everything Everything with unfussy, impervious Top 10 ambitions or an infinitely more marketable, major-label-appeasing version of Alt-J. In which case, you’re bombarded by stuff like Tangerine, which pops like microwavable popcorn, or Hot Sugar’s babbling, tuneful nonsense (“watermelon juice kiss, Esprit gold rims”), floating over humid, vaguely psychedelic, G-funk-angled R&B. To show he really means business, Bayley drops into a Drake impression, filtered through effects, on the pointless, chorus-less oddity Melon and the Coconut.

You can hear the effort that’s gone into making Your Love (Déjà Vu) sound like something produced by Timbaland circa 2006. It’s not horrible, but too tidily and proficiently constructed: the chorus comes exactly when you expect, the verses are predictably tight and snappy. Ordinarily, these virtues would be evidence of a killer, irrefutable pop song, but, here, you can’t avoid but intuit Glass Animals’ oddly cynical approach. Strafed with pop-culture references of a particular vintage – if you remember your first taste of Capri-Sun or your first Nintendo cartridge, you’ll feel the warm, familiar glow of nostalgia – the lyrics have all the authenticity of a multinational corporation’s social media feed dispensing with clued-up, youth-oriented hashtags and modern slang, incongruously thrown in to assuage the suspicion they’re currying favour with teens. As such, it dampens the personal moments that should otherwise deal a bruising impact.

Domestic Bliss’s darkly compelling and sensitively handled tale of domestic abuse – reportedly inspired by the real-life experience of a friend of Bayley’s own mother – is killed stone-dead by Bayley’s vocal inflections: if you were being charitable, you’d say, having been brought up in the States until he was 13, the transatlantic twang in his voice is appropriate not appropriating; if you aren’t so forgiving, you may say piling on the abbreviate verbs like doin’ or beggin’ in a mumblerap-friendly whisper errs into dicey territory, particularly when you’re competently knocking out songs like Heat Waves, a Lil Uzi Vert or Juice WRLD clone with a pop topline in place of a shrill, emo-tinged rap. It’s not as bad as Space Ghost Coast to Coast, on which Bayley adopts a contemporary hip-hop rapper’s flow – the kind that tilts alarmingly if fairly mildly into the area marked “straight outta Cranham, I am” – to muse on what moved his old friend to plan on carrying out a school shooting, but, worse still, revives the dubious claim that gangsta rap and video games cause spates of actual real-world crime and appalling violence: “Playin’ too much of that GTA, playin’ too much of that Dr. Dre,” he offers a little glibly.

At best, it could highlight a sense of internal conflict, but you do wonder why he’s suddenly started clutching his pearls and gotten all PMRC – especially when Dreamland’s musical template borrows so heavily from a genre of music that’s long battled the infamy of a Parental Advisory sticker. There’s something ersatz and underwhelming about a bunch of white dudes adapting the black music styles that have overwhelmed the charts in recent years and doing so dead straight, rarely twisting them into a singular sound of their own. Dreamland’s major crime, however, is allowing their solid, soulless knack for synthesising notable pop styles overpower the personal aspects of the album. It’s All So Incredibly Loud’s unfolding drama, gradually rising in tension and volume, is patently effective, although, rather than reach a stunning emotional peak, the result is very anticlimactic, as if somebody’s merely manipulating the mixing board knobs but with no clue how to end the track. Unoriginality is forgivable. Glass Animals’ ruthlessly accomplished yet businesslike pop isn’t.

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