Photo Credit: Savanna Ruedy
There’s one track tucked in the middle of Gryffin’s 2019 debut Gravity that suggested the then 31-year-old could be EDM’s next great hope. “If I Left The World” begins, seemingly, as a traditional song about lost love, but in its second verse evolves into one about crushing isolation and even suicide as featured vocalist MARINA sings in her ever-captivating mezzo-soprano of what could’ve been if she hadn’t “gone and left the world.” Beyond the staggering lyricism, what made the song so promising was the success of its minimalist-electropop soundscape that stood out so distinctly from the maximalist stylings that had defined the big-EDM hits of the 2010s.
On his sophomore effort, Alive, Gryffin largely abandons his most promising tendencies in favor of a tried-and-tested formula that subsumes his most distinctive characteristics as a DJ. Opener “Alive,” which regrettably ends up being the album’s worst song, devolves into an all-too-predictable and overbearing beat drop that forces its featured vocalist, Calle Lehmann, to resort to pained oversinging. The following “Forever” features a better singer and tones things down somewhat, but it’s still rife with clichés that prevent it from fully taking off – as Elley Duhe sings of being “just a drop in the ocean.” This is perhaps Alive’s most enduring problem, rearing its head most prominently on “Glitch in The Simulation,” which features the album’s most overéswrought and forced metaphor (“Sure you need rain to make a rainbow // But I haven’t worn my raincoat in some time”).
The quality of vocalists on Alive is generally lower than it was on Gravity – the one-two gut punch of Model Child and MARINA’s vocals on “If I Left The World” lies unrivaled here. Instead, we’re left with tired male crooners like Matt Maeson – who sounds like so many singer-songwriter males who have come before him – and Audrey Mika – whose singing embodies the maligned phenomenon of ‘singing in cursive’. But it’s also true that Gryffin fails to take full advantage of the album’s more talented singers. MØ may have been responsible for the fantastic hidden gem of a pop album that was 2018’s Forever Neverland, but she sounds utterly unremarkable here. Meanwhile, Tinashe does her best on “Scandalous” – and thus makes that a highlight of this LP – but given a choice, you’d still rather listen to nearly any of her solo material.
Some of Alive’s best moments occur in its final moments – admittedly, a fatal flaw in an album such as this, whose target audience likely doesn’t have the patience or loyalty to make it that far. Calle Lehmann returns on “After You,” this time with Jason Ross to assist her and Gryffin. The trio finds power in the same sort of straightforward confessionals that made “If I Left The World” so compelling in the first place. “I just don’t know how I’m supposed to be alright,” Ross admits, sounding utterly eluded by resolution.
The sight of a OneRepublic collab to close out this album initially inspired dread, given the relentless lows the group stooped to on their most recent full-length Human, but “You Were Loved” ends up making for the album’s most compelling moment. A detail-oriented, nostalgic number, it’s filled with memories of youth and mournful ruminations on the ways we stray from the straight and narrow as we get older. It’s filled with compassion for those who lose their way (“Some of us just have to let go”). Still, it more importantly is filled with warmth towards them – exemplified by the moment in which Ryan Tedder sings to our protagonist, “I hope that our paths, they cross again // Cause I’m dying to know all the places you’ve been.” Unlike most of Alive’s near-hourlong runtime, this simple declaration feels so authentic, so endearing, and crucially, so human (which is, ironically, a quality that was entirely missing from that OneRepublic album of the same name).
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