Alex Pall and Drew Taggart have made the worst album of 2017. Ignoring that we’re only a third of the way through the thing; the general consensus seems to be that The Chainsmokers have released a debut devoid of excitement, inspiration and balls. And this isn’t a judgement unique to music critics: I’ve seen quite a few Chainsmokers fans cry betrayal online too.
You'll notice that my review doesn't end here.
Up front I’ll say that I have a…complicated relationship with The Chainsmokers. I learned of them from (the best critic on the internet) Todd Nathanson’s review of #SELFIE back in 2015. To put it mildly, #SELFIE isn’t rewarding, but the duo have repeatedly emphasised that it was written as a joke. An attempt to engineer a viral novelty hit while recklessly flirting with the risk of “one-hit-wonder-dom.”
That they stuck around and found increasing chart success has raised many eyebrows. For my part, the majority of their output simply glanced off me. Then came “Closer” - the Halsey collaboration which rocket-propelled them to enormous returns across many territories. I’m a big fan. It’s a song suffering from some serious dysfunctions, but it revealed a singular and intriguing musical vision. Also, it has one of the best music videos of all time.
“Closer” brought me on-board, at least enough to justify my anticipation of Memories…Do Not Open. However, I found opening number “The One” unsatisfying. I didn’t hate what I was hearing, rather I was surprised by how subdued and laced with pathos it was. I was expecting something more grandiose, more assertive; but at least it laid out some terms: check your expectations, prepare for some neat twists in production, and hot damn is backing vocalist Emily Warren a serious talent. “The One” also reassures us that one of the most charming aspects of The Chainsmokers’ act remains present and correct: Taggart’s strangely reassuring inability to actually, y’know, sing.
For me the album really begins with track two, “Break Up Every Night.” Taggart’s still at the mic, but the tables have been flipped over and he’s riding an energised racing pace which prompts entertaining sing-along moments. “Break Up Every Night” also highlights another thing I really appreciate about The Chainsmokers: their distinctive way with words (‘She’s got seven personalities/Every one’s a tragedy’; ‘She wants to break up every night/Then tries to fuck me back to life’).
“Bloodstream” doesn’t follow on well from “Break Up Every Night”. It’s essentially a much more bitter incarnation of “Closer;” just without Halsey’s incredible pipes to help carry the load. Very easy to disregard.
Memories…noticeably peaks and troughs. Although there aren’t any nakedly awful songs on the album, it’s incredibly easy to identify which songs actually have some blood going to them. Warren takes centre stage on “Don’t Say;” a song demonstrating The Chainsmokers’ genuine talents as producers. Industrial tones reminiscent of alarm calls help illustrate one of the dominant themes of The Chainsmokers’ body of work - dysfunctional, potentially destructive, yet somehow rewarding, relationships. Warren’s wearied tone and emotionally resonant vocals are impressive and entirely appropriate. It’s arguably the best song on the record.
Another drop. Though I’m not really a fan, Coldplay have benefited from my doubt considerably over the years - I’ve never bought into the charges of tedium and creative dead-ends frequently leveled at them. That being said, as a collaboration, “Something Just Like This” really doesn’t help their case. Easily the least interesting song on Memories…. Essentially it’s an adequate cut rejected from A Head Full Of Dreams, with some presets from The Chainsmokers’ tool box bolted onto the chorus.
Here’s something I want to see happen: Emily Warren using Memories…as a launchpad towards enormous success as a solo-artist. “My Type” is a bittersweet piano ballad which is enhanced by the textured and layered electronic production. It’s simultaneously smooth and spiky, and undeniably, achingly cool.
Another guest arrives: French actress/singer Louane. You can tell she’s French because second long breaks in the music allow her to mutter ‘Mon amour’. “It Won’t Kill Ya” is on par with “My Type”, more or less; although the fart-tones which undermined previous single “Don’t Let Me Down” leave little piles all over this one too.
Now we’re really getting to it. “Don’t Say” is objectively the best song on Memories…, but “Paris” is the one I love. If you’d told me even a month ago that I would take a Chainsmokers song into my heart, I would have scoffed. Particularly one fronted by Drew Taggart. But “Paris” is so gloriously euphoric and defiant in tone (‘If we go down then we go down together/We’ll get away with everything/Let’s show them we are better’).
It’s another song about passion in the face of regret and confusion and implosion. However, it’s also the finest example of The Chainsmokers’ knack for gradually introducing various instruments and ideas into the mix. They skilfully ramp up the emotional charge, leading to a synth-line which delivers 45 of the best seconds I’ve heard in any song ever. I’m not joking.
Naturally such a wonderful tune is followed by something far less interesting. In some ways it’s actually astonishing how “Honest” came to be so boring; given how stark and obnoxious the production is.
“Wake Up Alone” is a better exercise in contrasts. There’s an almost darkwave vibe going on throughout. David Guetta and deadmau5 are confirmed Chainsmokers inspirations and there’s definite traces of them here; though I would be very curious to know if Taggart and Pall have at least some VNV Nation in their collections. There’s a hint of EBM, if not a definite flavour. Regardless, guest vocalist Jhené Aiko’s sunny vocals really help mix things up.
“Young” has a neat hook - an acoustic guitar. Also the robots manage to ring some pretty fine vocals out of Taggart. Am I being mean? I hope not, because this is a really good song. It has some real energy to it and, again, some great lyrical ideas (‘We both know I go too far, like when I wrecked your car/And almost fought your father when he pushed me in the yard’). There’s some great stomping beats and I mentioned robots for a specific reason: Soundwave from Transformers seems to snatch the microphone away from Taggart towards the end. Which is, admittedly, an improvement.
Ah here we go…”Last Day Alive”, a song I was concerned about, because it's a collaboration between Florida Georgia Line (the standard bearers for “bro-country”) and The Chainsmokers - who have image problems of their own. I was not looking forward to this one. I was expecting brainless, shameless, dick-waving; but oh me of little faith. “Last Day Alive” is synth-driven and far more pensive than I could have imagined. I’d actually hazard to guess that it's some attempt by Florida Georgia Line to completely overhaul their image. Regardless, “Last Day Alive” is a suitably "big" song, but not a particularly impressive way to sign off. For me, “Paris” would have been a surer bet; though I would have peppered that song through the album multiple times if I’d been in the booth.
Repeat listens have suggested to me that Memories…Do Not Open more or less lives up to the expectations “Closer” seeded in me. I like it, and if nothing else it's a fascinating listen; especially when you consider - given their popularity and EDMs dominance over the charts - that they could’ve released something less ambitious and accomplished, and still swam Scrooge McDuck style in the royalties.
The Chainsmokers haven’t shattered any paradigms or silenced any critics. But I for one am grateful that they’ve managed to consolidate their unique (albeit schizophrenic) place in modern music.