Photo Credit: Ryan Allan
Wisconsin’s Carlie Hanson had her big break when her song “Only One” was added to a playlist curated by Taylor Swift. The best moments on her debut album Tough Boy occur when she embraces a Swiftian style of songwriting; where small details are blown up to cinematic proportions – where being in love is the greatest thing in the world, and a breakup is the worst thing happening to anyone anywhere. On perhaps the best song here, “Nice To Know Ya”, Hanson zooms in on intimate moments – a girlfriend’s voice breaking on the phone, oversharing late at night – to create a patchwork quilt of love and loss. “Your Mom”, meanwhile, features one line that perfectly captures the way that healthy relationships can bring out the best in both partners (“Your mom told me you never wore colors ‘till we met”).
Elsewhere, however, Tough Boy is undermined by awkward genre fusions and a frustrating reliance on cliché. The opener “Off My Neck” is emblematic of this; filled with the mind-numbingly simplistic lyricism that sounds as if it was ripped directly from the back pages of a middle schooler’s angsty notebook. (“They said the truth hurts, but what about lies?”) Meanwhile, the song’s attempts to fuse indie-pop with pop-punk risks draining both genres of their signature charm. In its worst moments, Tough Boy recalls Avril Lavigne’s latest LP Love Sux in its clumsy song-writing. Even if there thankfully aren’t any attempts here to rhyme “*sshole” with “castle”, however, there are some real clunkers here – “I’m Stevie Wonder-ing how you’re so blind” is particularly excruciating.
For the most part, however, the lyricism here isn’t so much painful as it is insipid. “Tough Boy” – which is sung from a male perspective – attempts to dissect the roots of toxic masculinity, but struggles to transcend the disposability of lines like “I’m a hot boy, on the block boy.” While “Girls In Line For The Bathroom” – barring a few promising moments – relies heavily on tired tropes and metaphors and ends up sounding like a Halsey impression (even down to the “blue” color imagery). “F*ck Your Labels”, meanwhile is a noble attempt at creating an LGBTQ+ anthem, but feels dated. In the age of daring boundary-pushers like Lil Nas X and indie singer-songwriters who write exquisitely about queer love (Lucy Dacus, Snail Mail, Pom Pom Squad), “F*ck Your Labels” fails to deliver on its revolutionary ambitions.
There are hints of a better album here. “Minnesota” sees Hanson reach an Ariana Grande style whistle note, and while lacking the illuminating production flourishes of Grande’s best music, it remains an interesting artistic departure. Meanwhile, the album’s most inward-looking moments – like the affecting “Love You Anyway” – achieve intermittent transcendence. For all these special moments, however, there are far more examples of awkward experiments (the Emo-trap “Gucci Knife”) and verses undone by tired turns of phrase (“Takes one to know one”). Carlie Hanson undoubtedly has baseline talent, but Tough Boy is merely a suggestion of the sort of artist she could be.