Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Ryan Middleton, Carolyn Menyes and Caitlin Carter chat about Zedd's sophomore album True Colors. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section, and check back next week for more.
Ryan Middleton: Zedd has been responsible for some of the biggest EDM-pop crossover hits of the past few years, including "Break Free" with Ariana Grande, "Stay The Night" with Paramore's Hayley Williams and his breakthrough single "Clarity." His recent single "I Want You To Know" with now ex-girlfriend Selena Gomez has been consistently getting pop radio play and stayed pretty high in the charts since its February release.
With his sophomore album, Zedd looks to build on the success he has enjoyed over the past few years, play to his strengths as a musician and electronic music producer and experiment with new styles and genres.
Carolyn Menyes: First of all, I had no idea that Zedd and Selena Gomez broke up?! When did this even happen? If she's going back to Bieber, I'm going to be severely disappointed...
That being said, I'm not a big EDM person. I come from the indie rock and pop persuasion, so I couldn't tell you Zedd versus David Guetta versus Calvin Harris versus the smaller guys. It all sounds the same to me because I am simple. So, is it also simple for me to say this album sounded like one big 50-minute song? On one hand, you could say that it flows together well, but on the other hand, I don't feel a major hit single on here. "I Want You to Know" was his best bet, and thus far that's only peaked at No. 17 on the Hot 100, though I guess it crowned the Dance/Electronic Songs chart. But, there's no "Clarity" here.
Caitlin Carter: I think that out of any EDM, Zedd would probably be the most up your ally then, Carolyn. He really toes the line between pop and electronic music, which is why to me a lot of this album sounds like generic 2015 pop. I agree that there also really isn't a standout "hit". However, there were a few songs I really liked, which were less on the pop spectrum and more on the rock/hip-hop spectrum.
The first standout to me was "Transmission," which features Logic and X Ambassadors. I think Zedd's production coupled with rap and darker alt-rock really works. Actually, after listening to this album, I think Zedd's production would work really well with music from Fall Out Boy and the like. Another favorite was "Papercut," with its smooth indie rock feel. I was also a fan of the title track "True Colors," which also felt very alt-rock. What were some standouts for you all?
RM: I think only two tracks on the album can really be considered really radio friendly -- "I Want You To Know" and "Beautiful Now" and both were used as lead singles for the album.
Standouts for me include "Beautiful Now." Zedd was able to chop up Jon Bellion's vocal and make it the focal part of the melody. Bellion is a name on the Visionary Music Group roster, led by Logic, to watch out for. If you are looking for another hit Carolyn, I think this is the track.
The more I listen to "Done With Love," the more I like it. It has hints of jazz in the beginning and the vocoder on the voice gives the tune a slower ballad feel next to the soft breaks. Transmission is the most interesting song on the album for me with the blend of rock, rap and EDM. Logic described the track as "crazy" and he was not far off. I think the rap misses the mark just a little bit, but Logic was the right man for the job. It is good to see Zedd experimenting and not just playing it safe from start to finish.
The mixing between tracks also gives the project a much more cohesive feel as opposed to other LPs, which have the feel of a random compilation of songs.
CM: It was really hard for me to discern individual tracks on True Colors when I wasn't specifically watching the album roll by on Spotify while I listened. So, in a way, "I Want You to Know" stood out to me, not necessarily because I think it's booming or interesting or unique, but just because I know it already. I also think Gomez's voice meshes really well with the way that Zedd commands his production. This song works better for me than "Break Free" with Ariana Grande did.
I don't think this album pushed a lot of boundaries, and maybe that's just because Zedd is already in our pop music lexicon. That being said, I really enjoyed the classical musical elements and piano of "Papercut." The more IDM feel (if I'm using that right) of this track really contrasted to the poppiness of the rest of this record, and it was pretty effective. However, the song ends up running way too long, and Zedd loses me at the five-minute mark or so, when "Papercut" descends into typical EDM beats.
CC: My main complaint with the album is that it's largely unimaginative. As Carolyn mentioned, it could be because that particular pop structure - soaring synth and driving female vocals -- is the sound of 2015. Even my preferred tracks, the ones with more of an alt or indie rock sound - aren't reinventing the wheel. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I was under the impression that electronic producers have an endless palette of sounds to choose from. So why keep using the same formula? Meanwhile, Jack Ü is totally killing it when mixing songs in the pop realm - like that Justin Bieber cut was actually interesting.
RM: Your complaint about the album being unimaginative is justified. 10 of the 11 tracks have vocals,which isn't a problem for an artist who has production credits for Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande, though the one instrumental "Bumble Bee" is a strong reminder of how heavy Zedd's music can get. Fans have been clamoring to hear that old complextro sound of his that was featured prominently on his 2012 album Clarity and he did oblige with "Bumble Bee" and "Addicted To A Memory."
I think he goes attempt to step outside of his comfort zone subtly with better songwriting and more complex production, but that could be a byproduct of the all-star teams that Insterscope set him up to work with. He shows off a bit at times in "Papercut" and "Illusions," getting carried away with sections that carry on for a little too long. It doesn't seem like he is trying to reinvent the wheel, just attempting improve on it in a distinctly Zedd manner.
CM: Yeah, I guess that not every album has to be innovative, but if you want me to pay attention, you at least have to try. I'm not so sure how hard he even tried here. I'm not mad at the vocal guests -- I think those flesh a song out and it does help you to latch onto a pop crowd.
And, "Bumble Bee" was actually one of my least favorite tracks; it just was an endless string of noise to me. I was kind of glad when the screeching, thumping EDM kind of fell by the wayside, and that song just brought it back out in full force.
Caitlin, you're right though. Jack U is doing really interesting music right now, and I'm a fan of the sort of atmospheric thing that Robin Schulz has been putting out over the last year or so. I think what I like in my electronic music is some sort of human element, be it an emotional arrangement or a pretty vocal. In that way, I agree that "Beautiful Now" is another album highlight. Jon Bellion does a great job singing the hell out of this song. But, then Zedd strips all of that away for raw noise, like we got on " Done with Love" or "Bumble Bee."
CC: I wonder if people who aren't so ingrained in the music culture -- the mainstream -- notice the homogeneity. For an album titled True Colors, it's not all that colorful. Maybe I'd just like to see him pull from some other genres. This album was just safe. I don't think it will go down as one of his most memorable, and I think to really standout beyond the crowd-pleasing, fist pumpers, he's going to need to do something innovative on his next effort. I don't think this will derail him in anyway, however, plenty of people will still get down to these songs on the festival circuit this summer. Hell, if I were mindlessly dancing and not trying to dissect and review this album, my critique might not be as harsh.
RM: Alright, I will play devil's advocate here. In terms of it being safe, he went for longer, more musical ballads and a rap, rock, EDM song. It wasn't the most radical thing ever done, like working with Four Tet and Tech N9ne (which would be dope), he is hinting at wanting to unleash the musician within him and try different concepts. Maybe he didn't feel like he was ready on this album to completely ditch the formula, but the signs are there.
I do agree that if he doesn't want to get trapped into some quasi-fringe pop EDM circle, he will need to change things up. He does seem comfortable in this realm, straddling the line between main stage and radio, which he has helped to innovate. Tracks like "I Want You To Know" may be something your little sister or you mom has on their gym playlist, but they also have an edge 99% that other non-EDM pop tracks don't.
CM: I guess when I think edge, I don't think Selena Gomez, but "I Want You to Know" is no Disney track, either. It falls in that middle for me. It's really glitzy but it works for a radio-friendly lead single and a club jam.
A rap song and some instrumentals does not an interesting album make when the rest of it is so standard. I think what might stand out for me, as I continue to dissect this album, is the end of the record when he starts to incorporate more classical elements. This could be a result of listening to way too much stringed music these days in my personal life, but I think "Daisy" brings something pretty new to this album. I love how orchestral it gets. And like I said, it brings in that human, vulnerable element that can make me connect with an electro song.
CC: I agree. I mean it's edgier than like Meghan Trainor, but when you look at other EDM-influenced songs topping the charts, they are still very interesting and apparently accessible, too. You got David Guetta's "Hey Mama," Major Lazer & DJ Snake feat. MO's "Lean On" and the aforementioned "Where Are Ü Now," all of which are more interesting. Zedd is not terrible, but he isn't terribly exciting for me right now either.
RM: True Colors feels like a wrap up of his productions in the electro / pop sphere and potential move to something slightly different, though we will just have to see.
He shows off his musicianship on tracks like "Addicted To A Memory" with the progressive keyboard at the end and the long ballads found on "Papercut," while also incoroprating some classical and jazz elements into others, but it still seems easy for him to make these bangers. The writing is better than his 2012 album Clarity and there is a clear progression here, but the same shock and awe that came with that album isn't felt because the formula isn't changed as radically. He has only been releasing electronic music for five years now, so there is plenty of time for improvement and growth.
CM: Yeah, I think that's what I mean. Maybe for Zedd, it's damned if I do, damned if I don't. If he changed up your sound too much, he could have alienated his fanbase early in his career. So, instead, he went for doing this, minor progressions but largely keeping things in tune with 2010s pop. And, now, this is a lukewarm critical release.
CC: I agree with Ryan that the cycle of what sounds/styles are "interesting" seem to change at a rapid pace, so I won't fault him for that reality. But my critique for him going forward is not to play it safe. You have a world full of sounds and styles to mess with, get creative. Be an innovator. You're definitely smart enough and have enough experience as a musician to do so, and now that you've established yourself, go crazy, Zedd!!!