Avicii 'Stories' Album Review: Junk Mail
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, Carolyn Menyes, Ryan Middleton, Johny Blue and Lindsay Haddox chat about Avicii's new album, Stories.
Ryan Middleton: It has been two and a half years since Avicii shocked the world at Ultra Music Festival when he brought out a harmonica and a banjo on the main stage. He quickly turned the world on to his brand of country-infused EDM that took over the radio with hits like "Wake Me Up" and "Hey Brother" from the Swedish producer's debut album True released later that year.
Now he is back with his sophomore effort Stories and there is more of what he started on True, but growth into more genres. There is a bit of everything in this album. Some straight EDM bangers, almost straight up country tracks, disco and even reggae. With all of this experimentation, how did all of this come out to you guys? A little messy or artfully crafted and written?
Johny Blue: It seems to fall somewhere in between to me. Stories stays true to all the things I already knew and liked about Avicii. It’s a big EDM album but manages to feel somewhat grounded and organic. I’d attribute that to the heavy country influences and his love for a gravely vocalist. “Waiting for Love” is a great album opener because it’s perfect mix of all the things you will find throughout this album. It all seems to flow pretty well for me. Some records I could have done without, “Ten More Days” was really boring, but otherwise I think it was a decent attempt and keeping up with a formula while trying new things. What did you think, Lindsay?
Lindsay Haddox: Alright, well to be honest before today I have never really listened to Avicii so I was able to go into this very open minded and really not knowing what to expect. I have my own opinions about EDM, and I didn't know how much I was going to like this album, if at all. However, I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed it and that this was nothing I expected it to be.
I like how he mixed different genres into this and was able to bring out in this what has influenced him throughout the process of making this album. I was pleasantly surprised with how much I loved "Pure Grinding." It is pretty different from a lot of the album but the song is so fresh and fun. I also loved the song "Can't Catch Me" and loved the he put a reggae type of song in it. My first thoughts about this album was not so much that is was a with all different types of genres on top of what he already does, EDM, but this was his album where he let his creativity fly and I can certainly dig that.
Carolyn Menyes: I've always enjoyed Avicii's blend of country and EDM -- it's always felt really refreshing to me in a genre that oftentimes runs together for me. So, on Stories, I felt like the most successful tracks kept close to what Avicii has done before. I applaud him, obviously, for stepping out of his comfort zone a little bit on the hip-hop leaning "Pure Grinding" and the reggae-infused "Can't Catch Me" and even those pure dance grooves such as "Talk to Myself" and "City Lights." However, I think all of those endeavors are a lot less successful.
"Pure Grinding," in particular was really jarring for me on an album that I felt was otherwise fairly cohesive. It just felt really out of place, especially with the vocal effects and the hard-hitting drums. It just didn't feel like Avicii to me and the execution was really awkward. I'm not sure why he even felt the need to inject soul and R&B into this record. It didn't work on any level. As a standalone single? Sure -- you can't deny that there's a sort of groove on this record and the drop is really successful. But, it's super clunky in the context of Stories and should have been edited out.
Am I alone on this? What did you think of these sort of outsider tracks?
RM: Re: "Pure Grinding," I can understand your concern where is fits within the album, but I think it is a brilliant track. Avicii is no longer the bright eyed kid thrust into the spotlight in 2010 in the era when every potential track with a piano or synth was labeled as an Avicii ID. He is older, has traveled the world, sold millions of records and become tabloid fodder. Thus it isn't surprising that harder, hip-hop influenced sound has permeated into that track about trying to make it in a cruel world.
I think the album excels when sticks to the formula he has already built in the meat of the album with tunes like "City Lights," "Broken Arrows" and the hopeful "For A Better Day." However things get a little sleepy towards the end and lose focus. The reggae collab with Wyclef Jean, Mike Enizinger and Matisyahu (what a lineup), "Can't Catch Me" feels like something is missing. The last Wyclef Jean collab with Avicii "Divine Sorrow" may have had a little more in it.
JB: I can't vibe to "Pure Grinding" for the life of me. He doesn't have the same understand of hip-hop and soul that he does of country and folk, and it shows. Plus I just don't feel they did the sample (Crystal Water's "100 percent Pure Love") any justice. Wyclef's contribution felt super out of place too. Might have been more at home on a Clef project than Avicii's.
I agree with you Ryan, he does excel when he sticks to his formula. "Broken Arrows" is easily my favorite track on the album because it feels the most organic and balanced. "True Believer" is awesome too. "Touch Me" was a welcomed change with its disco-tinged production and Celeste Waite sounding like an old-school sound sample.
The project overall feels like it would have worked better if commissioned as EP's, the songs seem to all pair off well in groups of twos and threes but don't flow as a whole.
LH: I understand the feeling that others are getting about "Pure Grinding" and how it doesn't flow with the rest of the album, but like Ryan said, that song is brilliant. I think it shows the growth of Avicii and the artist he has become. For him it was probably out of his comfort zone and doesn't fit the vibe he usually goes for, but because it's so good why pass up putting it on the album, but maybe it should have been a bonus track or something and it would have fit more because it is kind of just put randomly in the middle of the album.
He definitely does great when he sticks to his formula, but even when he doesn't he still created amazing songs. For instance "Can't Catch Me" with Wyclef Jean, is a really cool song off this. When you think about it does it fit the album, no it does not at all, but it is produced really well and it is super different. The instrumental is beautiful in this as well with the guitar and then the piano it flows together nicely.
I do think that Avicii should have paired the songs that were a bit different together to create a better flow through the album because they are randomly placed, but this is a fun album and I think that's what he was going for. I like that he took some big risks with the type of music he put in this album and showed off his growth as a person and as an artist. To grow you have to be willing to try something new and he did just that and I'm enjoying that and it is the risks he took that is drawing me into this album.
CM: It's actually a little funny because this album is reminding me just a little bit of Zac Brown Band's Jekyll + Hyde from earlier this year. Half of the songs were their traditional country and half really just went out there from reggae to EDM to alternative rock. It was ordered and executed very oddly, so even if a song was good it just didn't fit on the record. I'm glad that we all seem to agree on "Pure Grinding." On its own, it's totally fine (though I find it a little clunky like you do, John), but it doesn't work as the ninth song on this 14-track album.
Never underestimate the importance of tracking, kids! Bonus songs are OK! Standalone singles are OK too, by the way.
Oh, and the reason the ZBB comparison is a little funny to me is because the standout "Broken Arrows" features none other than Zac Brown! You have to hunt for that, though. The featured artists are buried in the credits on this album. Yo, Avicii, does it really hurt to add a "feat." on your tracklist?
So, when it comes to songs that work, what are your favorites?
RM: The whole feature thing is annoying when you want to find out who is on the track, it isn't unrepresented though. The Chemical Brothers do the same thing with their albums. It also forces you to read the liner notes (remember those?).
As for what works, "Gonna Love Ya" saves the end of the album for me. "The Days" and "The Nights" are solid bonus tracks, but have been around for some time and had their own EP released, so they are hard to include in the album. After "Sunset Jesus" things get a little uninspired, but "Gonna Love Ya" manages to capture a new summery vibe from Avicii music we haven't before, with the same cheery synth leads he is known for. The disco-influenced "Talk To Me" may be the best track on the whole LP. It is so catchy and funky with a little swing to it.
"True Believer" is probably the best pure EDM track on the album, though I feel like Chris Martin could have been utilized a little better and that arp makes me think of deadmau5 "Strobe."
JB: Yeah Ryan I felt the same about "True Believer," I think Chris Martin could have been utilized in a much bigger way. It was really a waste to be honest.
To answer your question Carolyn, I found myself revisiting "Somewhere in Stockholm" a few times so I think it would be one of my favorites. It's not the big EDM affair you look for when listening to Avicii, but I think it's a strong record and a good potential single. I think you made a good point about standalone singles too. I can find myself appreciating a handful of these records alone but when listened to in the context of an album they all overlap in a bad way. He should probably just stick to singles and ep's.
Also think it's unfortunate that he didn't feature a lot of the vocalist because they carried the majority of this album. I don't feel that any of these records were produced in a way that made me think "wow that's some amazing production" over "Wow that's a well written/sung song." Especially for the slow burners, which is about half this album.
LH: I did find him not putting who he featured on his album was weird, but I found what I needed to know pretty fast. I did have the ability to look them up right away, which some listeners may not be able to. Also if you listen through Spotify or Youtube then you can't exactly read the liner notes, instead you have to search the internet. It's not hard, but it would have just made more sense to include his features.
John I know what you mean about his songs being better if they were standalone rather than releasing a whole album. I went into this Avicii album listening experience very open minded. In a way I listened to each song as a single instead of listening to how the whole album flowed together which I think allowed me to just analyze each song individually when I was listening.
I really liked the song "Gonna Love Ya" and it's tropical kind of beat. Now that it is getting to be fall I enjoy a good song that reminds me of the beach and summer. I also like how "Talk to Myself" and "Touch Me" have these '80s vibes going on with the beats. After listening to this album a few times I kind of realized the songs that stuck out to me that I really enjoyed were the ones that we all have agreed should have been bonus tracks. Other than that, I don't know I kind of agree with John that maybe most of these should have been released as singles or EPs. I really like the songs on this album, but the flow does kind of throw me off a little. I will say though that until today I don't think I would have really given Avicii a chance, but I'm thankful I did because his music is enjoyable and he is really good at what he does.
CM: The flow definitely is a major issue, but when Avicii works well, he works well. I thought "Waiting for Love" was a smart single choice because it brings in everything fans have come to know and love about Avicii while still moving him in to the future. Kicking off the album, however, I feel like we needed something a little stronger and upbeat. The week count, however, adds a little something to this song as track No. 1.
I always like a little human element to my EDM, it's why something like "Where Are U Now" works well for me. So, I think that's why I can vibe with Avicii's country/EDM fusion. That's also why something like "Ten More Days" or "Somewhere in Stockholm" work well for me. They're emotional songs! And the atmospheric vibes of Avicii's synths add a sort of epicness to the vocals. It's a nice dichotomy.
But, when Avicii moves away from that and goes to something so house-y like "Talking to Me," it doesn't resonate as well. I wish he could really focus on that human element and continue to be smart as a producer and DJ, but alas... I'll take a few choice tracks from this and move on with my day.
LH: I was definitely impressed with this album. I don't usually listen to anything EDM (sorry Ryan) but I enjoyed what Avicii did with this. Although they are not the songs that mesh with the album I am standing with "Pure Grinding" and "Can't Catch Me" as my favorite songs on this album and I feel that they really showcased his talents and abilities to grow as an artist, along with having some fun with his music.
Although I agree with everyone that he should have released more songs as singles or EP's I think that overall this was produced very well. There was some experimental stuff along with what we are used to hearing from him and both were done well. After listening to this I'm definitely a fan and will be listening to this album again.
JB: Avicii isn't hurting for hits. One listen to Stories and it's obvious whether he's sticking to his formula or experimenting everything is prepped and ready for the radio and festivals. While it's not a cohesive album, it's a perfect example of what he has to offer and where he is looking to go with his brand. With Stories he can continue his chart reign of folk-kissed EDM hits or more forward into new turf with any of his one-off experiments. This album is packed with hit potential and has a host of talented vocalist all worth a quick google search if you're interested in who they are.
CM: Avicii tried to break out of his mold that he was so nuzzled in for Stories, and he only sort of succeeded. The tracking on this album was totally off, and had it been arranged differently, maybe it would make more sense as a record.
RM: Avicii expanded his musical palate on Stories. He helped change the pop conscious in 2013 by fusing EDM and country (though Rednex "Cotton Eye Joe" was a pioneer). Now he continues that trend with tracks like "City Lights" and "Broken Arrows," but also builds on that with more hip-hop, reggae and disco influenced songs. There are definite future hits in here that will join "Waiting For Love" on the radio, but as an album it can get a little messy and was slightly top-heavy.
The growth from 2013 to 2015 is clearly there. If this album does well, a second LP should be released. What new music might Avicii decide to include on that?