Photo Credit: Haley Appell & Lauren Leekley
Adding to the continued twists and turns that 2020 is so keenly eager to keep producing, The Neighbourhood have released a concept album, and it’s their most diverse and intriguing collection of songs yet, maybe even bordering on exciting at points. Forever known for “Sweater Weather”, the Newbury Park, California-based band attempts to expand their vision with Chip Chrome & The Mono-Tones, casting lead singer Jesse Rutherford as a chrome-drenched, android pop magnate, a sort of descendant of Ziggy Stardust and Mirrorball Man that leads with cool passivity. From their last record, completely titled Hard To Imagine The Neighbourhood Ever Changing, it’s hard to imagine The Neighbourhood staying the same now, setting a course for reinvention, and heading toward a more secure career vantage point.
While it’s worth conceding that Chip Chrome suffers from a tumultuous lack of cohesion, it’s that quality which creates an atmosphere that’s, for the first time on a Neighbourhood album, actually interesting. Songs weave in and out of focus in a manner that successfully highlights their influences; although the dearth of promotional materials and interviews accompanying the release leave the listener to guess along as the concept unfolds.
The dual-parts nature of the record doesn’t cleaver it in two distinct halves, rather two complementary pieces to the same puzzle. “Lost in Translation” could be a Miguel B-side from War & Leisure, while “Tobacco Sunburst” (easily the best song title on the record, perhaps in The Neighbourhood’s entire catalog) comes off as a psyched-out, acoustic cover of a Miguel song that never existed. There is a palpable need for more energy stemming from this concept, however, some short-sighted gaffs prohibit the record from achieving real greatness.
In naming Chip Chrome’s fictional backing band The Mono-Tones, The Neighbourhood fall into a trap of attrition, whereby consecutive songs can produce diminishing returns, sometimes suspiciously monotonous as if created that way on purpose. “BooHoo”, starting off the Mono-Tones portion of the record, even with admirable production touches, struggles to lift itself off the ground and grinds the album nearly to a halt, like a bit of elevator music accompanying the listener on their way to what’s next. “Silver Lining” is also nicely fitted with instrumental flourishes but languishes, filling a stop-gap that encourages dissociating.
“Pretty Boy” rings as a perplexing choice to open the album, a love song that hinges on uncomfortable feelings of everything falling apart. Rutherford says he wrote the song on his couch immediately after an earthquake, and the analogies are clear to back that up. It defines the record by starting it out on uneven footing, an easy-going song that is really anything but. Uncomfortability ripples through other songs on the record, too; standout “Devil’s Advocate” utilizes a slinking bassline and over-fuzzed guitars to create a spindly realm of sleazy negativity. “After experiencing different emotional highs and lows, I realize that even my most ideal results have resulted in negative emotions,” says Rutherford about the writing process behind the track. And in reality, this sound is exactly what should be filling this silver-inflected record. Sadly, there’s just not enough like it, and the song itself is just a tad short.
Chip Chrome is not wanting for ambition. It does successfully expand the sound of a band that was struggling to escape the gravity of a viral single, though it does not expand that sound with enough conviction, sometimes coming across as drained or even exhausted. Rutherford’s voice is neither distinguished enough to set the record apart based on his alter ego’s performance nor is it bland or receded enough to give the instrumentals more room to breathe and to shine. Moments of songwriting brilliance abound but are swallowed up by the vacuous nature of the somber songs swirling with electric guitar compositions and reverb. It’s entirely acceptable to desire a separate Chip Chrome career, apart from The Neighbourhood, to see what motifs blossom from the immersion in this alter ego. Whether we’ll get to see that or not, time can only tell. At this point, it’s hard to imagine what trajectory The Neighbourhood will take at all, and maybe that’s just how they want it to be.