Photo Credit: Marilyn Hue
28-year-old Albanian-American Ava Max has always felt like an oddity in the 2020s mainstream pop landscape. The maximalist pure-pop of her 4x Platinum-certified hit “Sweet But Psycho” stood in stark contrast to her chart-topping peers, who were either throwing it back to the ’80s (The Weeknd, Dua Lipa), penning stripped-back singer-songwriter numbers (Olivia Rodrigo, Folklore-era Taylor Swift) or reviving ’00s-era pop-punk (MGK, Rodrigo). Though Max has enjoyed respectable showings with successive singles – both “My Head & My Heart” and “Kings & Queens” reached the upper half of the Billboard Hot 100 – she has yet to create a hit that enjoys the ubiquity of “Sweet But Psycho.”
In retrospect, it seems as though that song’s success was not a sign of things to come for mainstream pop, but was simply a true outlier – akin to 2011’s “Somebody That I Used To Know.” In a weird way, then, it’s admirable that Max has decided not to move towards a more commercially friendly sound but has instead fully embraced creating pastiches of early-2010s bubblegum pop. That, however, is where the admirable qualities of her second studio album, Diamonds & Dancefloors, end.
The early-2010s are a weird era to draw from as a musician in 2023 – too far back to seem currently relevant, yet too recent to meaningfully evoke nostalgia. To do what Max is trying to do with Diamonds, then, is an inherently difficult task, but others have made it work. Carly Rae Jepsen, for instance, continues to make bubblegum pop sound appealing by capturing the ecstatic sugar rush of the genre’s tight structures and larger-than-life hooks.
What holds down Max’s efforts, then, is a persistent sense of diminishing returns. These are songs that are written like hits – tight verses with shimmering choruses, digestible melodies, and beat drops aplenty. They’re also written by hitmakers – among the exhaustive list of writers and producers credited are Michael Pollack (Beyonce, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber), Cirkut (Rihanna, Miley Cyrus), and Ryan Tedder (Beyonce, Ed Sheeran, and of course, OneRepublic). But all the songs lack that indelible quality that the best pop songs do – the quality that’s hard to describe but is undeniable when you hear it, the quality demonstrated by a song like “Teenage Dream” or “Uptown Funk” that crawls into your brain upon first listen and refuses to leave even years later.
Part of the reason for that is that Max sounds, frankly, bored on a lot of these tracks – indeed, no one has ever sounded so tired while declaring they’re “exhilarated” as Max does on “In The Dark.” But part of the reason is that Max’s litany of collaborators anonymize her – subsuming her voice into a tired and over-bearing sonic palette. So much so that on songs like “Million Dollar Baby,” the undoubtedly powerful singer sounds like she’s straining to deliver a vocal performance that matches the intensity of the song’s synths.
Indeed, one of the most frustrating elements about listening to Diamonds is these occasional glimpses we get of a more interesting, more authentic Max that dissipate just as quickly as they emerge. The aforementioned “Million Dollar Baby” is dominated by overbearing synths, but there are brief moments where the song opens up and builds and begins to resemble the fabulous disco music of Jessie Ware. On “Maybe You’re The Problem” Max takes on a bratty tone (“Always make it all about you // Especially when you’ve had a few, oh yeah // All the things I heard from your ex // Now they make a whole lot of sense”) that has all the markings of a great post-breakup song, but unfortunately lacks the required vocal bite to sell its message. Again, the problem isn’t that Diamonds is a bad pop album – it’s entirely serviceable – but it sounds like one that any other pop star with access to A-list producers could have made.
The title of Max’s sophomore effort, Diamonds & Dancefloors combines something luxurious and exclusive (Diamonds) with a space (Dancefloors) that is notable for its inclusivity and has, historically, served as safe spaces and creative breeding grounds for the marginalized. On the title track, Max sings sincerely of wanting to find salvation in the collective experience of listening to music on a dancefloor (“I miss the rhythm keeping me warm… I miss the music surrounding me”). Like the rest of the album it accompanies, the song could do a perfectly serviceable job of padding out a DJ’s setlist, but if Max was trying to create songs that remind us of the life-affirming power of music and dancehalls, she fell short.