Photo Credit: Grant Spanier
If you have ever heard of this Ohio-based indie pop band before, it is likely thanks to their 2014 smash hit single “Shut Up and Dance” from their Talking Is Hard album. Their following release What If Nothing lacked a new irresistible hit single to boost their sales and went largely unnoticed by both critics and the mainstream audience. Arriving in 2021 with their fifth studio album, the first one since bassist Kevin Ray’s departure one year ago, Heights builds on the same formula, combining shimmering keyboards with danceable hooks and arena-friendly power chords.
It starts pretty promisingly with the opening title track. “I’m falling for you with every cell of my body,” vocalist and songwriter Nicholas Petricca sings, as the grandiose, powerful production explodes in a forceful sonic boost. We even get a tasty guitar solo from Eli Maiman, resulting in a feeling that this may turn into something similar to one of The Killers most rock-infused excursions.
It all goes down the drain pretty quickly, though, as the band struggles to keep up with the bombastic pomp of the opener. The lead single and the second track of the record, “Can You Handle My Love??,” is one of the weakest indie-pop singles heard this year. The bouncing verses are irritating rather than irresistible, and the lyrics are subpar, making the listener just as confused as the narrator seems to be as the song constantly changes focus from alarmingly dark lines such as “Got a hole in my heart, gonna fill it with chemicals” to pleading love-clichés such as “Take a chance with my love,” before trying to impress us with “I got a crush on you and it’s not just physical” and concluding with “If you can’t relate then you’re too grown up.” It sounds like something a disillusioned fifteen-year-old with a serious personality crisis would come up with, not a 34-year-old frontman, and if this is intentional, why do they sound so happy? A successful hit single can be both happy (think “Shut Up and Dance”) or sad (think “Driver’s License” by Olivia Rodrigo), but this one is an emotional mess disguised in teenage pop. Weird.
Most of the remaining tracks are, with a couple of exceptions, uninspired and forgettable, and the questionable songwriting remains an issue throughout the album. On “My Kids”, Nicholas seems to once again have forgotten that love can (and should) be more than just physical, as he repeatedly sings about how sexy and beautiful his love interest is, eventually coming up with the slightly uncomfortable “you’ll make a sexy mama // we make a perfect fit” in the hook.
One of the few positive moments is “Fire in Your House”, featuring the late South African-legend Johnny Clegg and his son Jesse, which combine a funky Michael Jackson-beat with some of Talking Head’s late-era quirkiness, and if any song on this record actually makes the listener want to dance, it’s this. “Rise Up” also shows some promise. It is probably the most ambitious song on the record seeing the band experimenting with various genres such as gospel and electronic, but the loose structure makes it feel a little unfocused. Still, if there’s a sign of musical evolution anywhere on Heights, it’s got to be here.
In the end, Heights is the sound of a band desperately trying to remain relevant by somehow trying to recreate the song that made them famous. Occasionally, it might sometimes even seem as if they would be capable to achieve this incredibly hard task, but scraping just beneath the surface reveals weak songwriting, predictable chord structures, and plastic production. Not much here is exciting or fun and for a band said to be inspired by the likes of Talking Heads and David Bowie, their artistic development five albums into their career is remarkably limited, or should we say, non-existent.
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