There’s something about Alice… | Artist Review

“This is the point why, from ancient times, people discovered humming and singing, and everybody used to sing while they worked. But you will notice that today very few people sing at all. You have to make a thing of it. People are afraid of their voices—their melodic voice as distinct from their spoken voice. I know an enormous number of people who never sing at all. Why is it that when the scriptures, the Upanishads, the Sūtras are read, they are invariably chanted? Because an extra dimension is added to the voice as soon as you bring a note into it. That’s the divine element, you see?”

Alan Watts

There are two kinds of catchy tunes: those you hate and wish you could forget, and those you love and want to impregnate yourself with.

I was lying in bed the other day, while listening to the live stream of Sziget Festival, in Budapest, Hungary (though not watching nor paying attention to the music). The upcoming artist had just started their live act. Apparently, it was just another pop band (with a female singer). I turned out to be gratefully wrong. In fact, they had caught my attention since the very first song performed at Sziget, which sounded too damn’ good for just another pop band. And the same with the next one. I jumped out of bed to find out who were playing, and particular who was singing. As the live stream channel included no lineup info, I paid attention to the chorus and googled the exact same words + singer.

The result Google gave me: Alice Merton, a German-Canadian singer and songwriter, whom I didn’t know, and couldn’t stop listening to ever since, driven by the desire to become fully impregnated by her lyricism. There’s something about Alice Merton that’s hard to explain. It’s pop music, and yet it’s so much more. There’s something precious to it, something that is not to be easily found in mainstream pop music nowadays. Alice Merton squanders authenticity amidst the so-called cultural industry in which artists are often homogeneous, insipid, and mediocre. As if they were made of plastic, undergoing the same formatting, the same marketing standards and recipes for success.

Moody, Cathartic Power Pop

There’s something unique about Alice Merton that you don’t find in pop music nowadays. She squanders authenticity, and she has a lot to speak out in her lyrics. Especially about love, its pains and deceptions. Simplicity is truly a virtue in her case, not an excuse for the lack of talent. Or else Alice Merton, as a true artist, makes it look simple. Her musical range is quite eclectic: it can be alternative rock, electronica, soul, disco, post-punk, trip-hop, and whatnot. Many of her compositions have some dark shades, evoking 80s’ post-punk and dark wave elements; other songs remind me of the best there was in the 90s in terms of pop music (the same being true for the previous decade). And yet, Alice Merton is not up to emulate the aesthetics of decades past, which inevitably turns out to be so kitsch, much on the contrary: accompanied by a group of gifted musicians who make a difference when it comes to both the creative process of composing and performing live, Alice Merton embraces the present moment and takes pop music to a whole new level of musicianship and lyrical authorship.

When it comes to the rare combination of authenticity, lyricism, and boldness, a distant parallel could be drawn with female singers such as Feist, St. Vincent, Cat Power, Rox, Lily Allen, and, more recently, Billy Nomates. Alice Merton also reminds me at times of bands such as Garbage, the Cardigans, Mazzy Star, Hooverphonic, and Portishead (all of which also have great women as vocalists). Many pop artists have one great song, their hit single of a lifetime, whereas the rest of their discography is utterly dismissable. Alice, on the contrary, has the gift of creating powerful pop hits one after the other.

Alice Merton is a serial hitmaker: it seem as though each and every single on her (not yet extense) discography shines in their own distinguished way. Take Mint (2019), for instance: every single track has much so personality, their own identity, like unique and altogether different creatures. It’s not as though all of the songs sound alike, as if they had come out of a frozen food processor.

It seems as though most of Alice Merton’s songs are the perfect pop hit singles, ranging considerably in styles. They have delightful chord progressions and crescendos leading to memorable, cathartic refrains that could be endlessly repeated without the risk of getting bored. So many colours, such musical vividness. Her music is urgently danceable, in such a way that dancing (and singing along) becomes an ethical imperative, so to speak. It’s supposed to lift the feet of massive audiences off the ground. Also the lone dancer’s, at home, in front of the mirror. She has such gripping power ballads, as lyrically perfect as power ballads can be. Whatever your instrument of choice is, apart from the voice (drums, bass, keyboard), you’ll want to air play it along. And if you’re prone to using your natural vocal instrument instead, you’ll sing along to such tasty melodies.

In Alice’s pop universe, music (art) comes first. Unlike much of pop music made these days, marked by mediocrity disguised underneath flashy clothes, tattooed bodies, and autotune-dependence. The arrangements of Mint (2019) as a whole are just superb. This must be accounted to the band as whole. At Sziget, besides Alice, there’s a guitar player, a bass player, a keyboard/synthesizer player, and a drummer (equipped with some electronic pads, which sounds perfectly). I’d like to briefly analyse three of her songs, my favorite ones so far: “Why so serious?”, “Learn to Live”, and “I Don’t Hold A Grudge”.

1. “Why so serious?” – Musically, it’s a smart, funky tune. Definitely a happy song, not a melancholic one. The lyrics call into question our tendency to take life so seriously that we end up missing it, not seizing it. Perfect for singing and clapping along. The perfect pop hit. There’s a rare kind of joyful nobleness to it. Could listen to it and sing along for days straight. Uplifting, witty, seriously unserious, cheerful.

2. “Learn to live” – It couldn’t start better, as a funky tune whose short riffs may resemble Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean”. And then the dramatic transition to the main part with the chorus: “I wanna learn how to live / without the consequences”. What’s most remarkable is that the chorus comes before the climax; the most intense, the main part of the song is not sung, but only chanted (no words). Although it’s not a melancholic or sad song, there’s something dark to it (which resembles 80s’ synth-pop and dark wave). The main section, without lyrics (chanted), could not be more sublime. The harmonics of it as well, mainly provided by the keyboards/synthesizers (which stand out on “Learn to Live”), gives it a dreamy, nostalgic mood. Such a powerful bass line that provides the song with a smooth and yet dark “ground”, going down low to minor scales and then up to major ones, while the singing/chanting goes on, maintaining a certain pitch. I cannot help thinking that “Learn to Live” could be re-interpreted in a variety of styles, even black metal. By the way, if you enjoy the song check out its drum ‘n’ bass remix.

3. “I don’t hold a grudge” – It starts as a funky tune, with a fresh, swingy rhythm. The composition stands out for the balance between the insertion of instruments (guitar riffs, bass lines, drums, sung verses) and small silences, thus avoiding the compulsion to fill every second with layers and layers of sounds, not to mention effects. It’s a gripping transtion from the initial, funky section, to the main section with the chorus. Powerful crescendo of voice and piano, culminating in an irresistibly dancy song: “I don’t hold a grudge / I just know if the feeling’s right…“. High-energy, passionate, cathartic disco/dance music, with moving, ascending melodies… “one more time with feeling!” (Nick Cave). PS: Daft Punk should reunite to make a remix of “I Don’t Hold A Grudge”.

Delirvs Cardiac, 13th August, 2022

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