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 Selena Gomez's new album, Revival.
Carolyn Menyes: What was Selena Gomez to do? At 23 years old, she was no longer the baby-faced star of Wizards of Waverly Place and girlfriend of Justin Bieber. And she needed to prove it. On her first album away from the Disney machine and Hollywood Records, Gomez headed to Interscope, and she really had two choices. She could have gone the Miley Cyrus route, with overly sexualized music and more shock than substance. Or, she could have gone the Demi Lovato route, which is to say, make safe and empowering music that's adult but not ADULT.
In the end, on Revival, she went somewhere in the middle. Her lead single "Good for You" with A$AP Rocky seemed to indicate she was going to go full Miley. However, when she released her own topless album artwork, it was more vulnerable and personal than sexualized. And that's the groundwork for this, her second solo album. Gomez wants to show the world who she is, independent of Bieber, independent of Disney and as an independent woman. I think, for the most part, she succeeded in that venture.
What do you feel of the groundwork for Revival, Lindsay?
Lindsay Haddox: After hearing the few songs Selena Gomez put out before her album, it was safe to say I had no idea what route she was planning to take. Like you said Carolyn, was she going to follow in the footsteps of her peers Miley Cyrus or Demi Lovato, calling this her actual Revival, we had no idea.
However, I was pleasantly surprised with the album she released because this isn't another Stars Dance that had better beats than music. Instead, each song is really relatable to and has a lot of emotion which is far different than the five albums that came before Revival. Gomez also seems to have spent time experimenting with different kinds of sound and her voice. I find it is extremely noticeable in the song "Hands to Myself" which when I first heard is unlike anything I have heard her to but really liked. I feel that she really was able to do exactly what she wanted to do and that was break free from everything she was tied to and finally have her own voice and be herself.
Johny Blue: I'm glad you mentioned "Hands To Myself" Lindsay, because it was that song along with title track and opener "Revival" and "Kill Em With Kindness" that set this album off to a great start for me. I'm also glad you guys brought up Miley and Demi, because I couldn't help but think about them while listening to this project.
Outside from dating Bieber, Selena has always been the quieter of the bunch, and I was glad that Revival played more like a homecoming than a reinvention. She's no powerhouse, but Selena has always had a cool texture in her voice that's made songs like "Love You Like a Love Song" and "Come And Get It" standouts over the last few years. On this album it was clear that they wanted to cater to her voice as opposed to trying to change it.
All and all it was strong, more hits than misses. "Body Heat" is horrible and needs to be destroyed, but otherwise I think Revival had a nice balance of diversity while maintaining a bit of a linear sound. Like I mentioned before, the first three tracks had me sold, I could have gone for more of that sound but this is a pop album so I understand that they needed to switch it up.
Ryan Middleton: Oh man after a series of rousing cheers, I feel like I am about to rain in on this parade. Maybe I am taking the title Revival a little too literally, because I don't feel all that inspired by a revived Gomez musically if that is what she is going for, but maybe a more mature woman, I can understand. There was a clear attempt at diversity in production and sound in this album, with some more '80s inspired stuff (which I liked) and then latin and R&B tracks, but it did get a little sleepy at times.
Agreed John, "Body Heat" sounds like something Rock Mafia and Hit Boy made 2 years ago when those horn-based beats were all the rage and it just never got placed, then her A&R heard it and decided this album didn't have enough hits so they wanted to record on it.
CM: You're right, Ryan. Revival really keeps things in mid-tempo, but as Lindsay and John pointed out, that is really sort of Gomez's strength. She's not a belter like Demi Lovato and she's not some sort of hype pop star like Katy Perry. She sort of shines in the middle. So, while I get that the sort of pace of this album isn't the most exciting, I think if they reached too far out of that, we would just get a lot of messy music that Gomez may or may not even be capable of executing.
I also think you may be taking Revival a little too literally and extremely. Sonically, this album is less of a career reset (a la Cyrus'Bangerz) and more of a logical continuation from the world of sugary pop rock to sizzling, modern pop and R&B. In the span of Gomez's previous four albums, this one is far and away the most mature, realized and thematically cohesive. And that's where the real "revival" takes place. This album is PERSONAL. Yeah, you have some discardable tracks like "Body Heat" (Jennifer Lopez cast-off, anyone?), and I'm not a fan of "Me and the Rhythm," but that's bound to happen on any pop album. And I'll just be dismissive of those for now and really dig in later. But, thematically, I think Gomez really is reviving something.
What do you think of some of these lyrics? I'm thinking stuff like "Revival," "Camouflage," and "Sober." I just feel like we get a good picture of some of Gomez's struggles here.
LH: Well I love how Gomez starts the entire album with her saying "I dive into the future/ But I'm blinded by the sun/ I'm reborn in every moment/ So who knows what I'll become?" It's a very strong start to the album and sets the whole thing up and allows her to set up this album as a way that she will be telling her story. I feel that this album, yes address Gomez's struggles with Bieber, but it also is very empowering. In the song "Sober" Gomez shows that she understands that there were times where she was in a toxic relationship, whether it be with friends or with Bieber himself and that even though she loves whoever it is, she cannot be a part of it anymore. Which brings me to backtrack to "Revival" where she clearly states that she has broken free, her career is more than just a tabloid story waiting to happen, but that she is Selena Gomez and she does not need to be tied to anyone to be the success that she is, or has been.
I would also love to point out that this album isn't just Gomez telling a story, I feel that it is very empowering to a lot of people as well. On the deluxe version there is the song "Me and My Girls" where Gomez clearly states that she does not need a man to make her feel good and in this day in age is a great thing to showcase to the world and to the younger and even older audience. Maybe this song is called "Me and My Girls," but I think this song's message is good for all types people to remind them to feel confident in your own skin. I feel that Gomez's entire album is not only her so-called revival, but it was a way to being out her confidence which can be hard to find when a lot of people are trying to bring you down. I think that's why I respect it so much, because she knows she might not have the voice that others do when it comes to singing, but she creates a wonderful message.
So, I know that is how I have viewed the album lyrically, but Johny do you see that same kind of concept of her feeling empowered and confident throughout this album or do you feel that she is trying to say something else?
JB: The album went a few places lyrically but overall told a pretty accurate story of someone dealing with life after a few major milestones. I agree that she sounds empowered, but overall the album felt reflective, hopeful and fun.
I'm glad you mentioned "Me and My Girls," I felt that track was such a missed opportunity. I love that Robert Rodriguez inspired sound and it complimented her voice nicely but they did nothing with it. If you recall Lady Gaga's "Aura," this song sounds like its distant, less attractive cousin.
Going all that way back to what Ryan was saying, Revival is a bit of a misleading title. I applaud Selena for continuing to build on a foundation rather than switching her whole style up, and again finding material that compliments her voice and narrative.
I think the album is really well written, I've already confessed my love for its opening three tracks, and I think "Camouflage" is easily its standout record lyrically. I actually like "Me and The Rhythm," it's cheesy, but from an audio engineer standpoint I really enjoyed the mix and how they played around with her voice and arrangement. I found "Rise" a little disappointing for the opposite reason, despite a pretty convincing performance on the verses there's obviously another voice overwhelmingly present on the hook with her.
RM: This album does seem much more personal then what she has done in the past, which would indicate that though there are 37 other writers, singers, rappers (A$AP) and producers on the album, she was able to direct their efforts to her own struggle and life story.
I wasn't enthused at first about the opening of the album, but i have been convinced that it is well-written and a good intro to Revival.
"Survivors" sounds like they wanted to have another "I Want You To Know" smash single, but weren't willing to go all the way to Zedd. It is catchy at first, but in the end forgettable after an hour.
John, I think the additional vocalists on "Rise" helps the song and fits the theme of empowerment and being able to rise above the obstacles that stand in your way with the help of those around you.
For me, this album doesn't really have many big, radio-friendly hooks. How will it fare on radio without those?
CM: I'm still a little shaky on "Revival" itself. I'm actually surprised you like it so much, John. I think that, tonally, it sets good groundwork for the rest of the following album, but other than that it doesn't offer up much else. So it's effective for its purpose, but if you took it away from the rest of this album, it'd be a very strange song. And, yeah, there were clearly a mess of people on this album -- I don't really trust Gomez to write her own material -- but I think that they still all managed to tie together for one complete story. I love that you guys pointed out the confidence on this album. That really radiates, which I think is a little different for Selena.
As far as single potential goes, you guys KNOW I love a hook more than anything, but I'm not so sure if Gomez needs it to be successful on Revival. And hear me out on this. Her lead single "Good for You" isn't hook-less but it's not that expected drop and banger. And that's been her biggest single ever, topping off at No. 5 on the Hot 100. The same could be said for the Charli XCX penned track "Same Old Love," her second single. That's topped off at No. 43 and it's only gaining momentum.
When we talk about single potential and hit potential, I too will hop on the "Hands to Myself" train. It's a really unique and quiet song but there's something so mesmerizing about it. I've never been a HUGE Selena Gomez fan, but that song has me reeled in. I have a feeling they're going to push "Me and the Rhythm" next, which yawn...
LH: Yes, I too am going to hope that "Hands on Myself" makes its way to the radio eventually. I also really enjoy "Kill Em with Kindness" I like the beat and the whistling in it, it's a very simple song but it's very catchy and fun. If we are talking single, this would be a cool one as well to hear it's upbeat and has a fun chorus that makes you just want to dance, which is something the radio is full of these days. Another plus, it sends such a positive message out so that would be nice to see playing on the radio. However, I do not know if we will see either of these on the radio and I do feel that "Me and the Rhythm" is probably going to be the next single. It's not really my favorite song on the album, but that's the one they have been pushing the most after "Same Old Love."
This is Gomez's fifth album and is really the first one that sounds the most like her. When she was Selena Gomez and The Scene she was a product of Disney and even her first album as only Selena Gomez seemed made to keep her on the grid and up to date with competitors like Miley and Demi. There are definitely some duds on the album like "Body Heat" but I think this album shows Gomez's growth and ability to take some control on the writing and the way she wanted her album to sound. She may not be the best vocalist, but I think that this album was a great way for her to come back and leaves a lot of room for her to grow as an artist.
JB: I agree with you Lindsay, I do feel it's the most authentic music we've gotten from Selena to date. To answer your question Ryan, maybe Selena's niche isn't big hooks, but just really catchy, laid back pop. One look at her top 5 on Spotify, and sans current single "Same Old Love" everything seems to fall under that umbrella.
It's funny you point out my backing of the title track Carolyn, but it isn't all that surprising when you consider my usual critiques. I'm always looking for a some kind of continuity between album tracks, and while "Revival" can't stand alone as a song, it's a great set up for "Kill em With Kindness" and album standout "Hands to Myself", in addition to just overall setting the tone for the project. The reason I favor the albums first three songs is because they have that same hybrid indie/hip-hop/pop feel as its lead single. It's a lane she kind of owns right now and plays well into her image. To its credit, even "Me & The Rhythm" sort of plays into that idea, although we all seem to agree that "Hands To Myself" is an overall better song and single. I'm almost certain "Sober" or "Camouflage" will be singles at some point too, they careful swear into Taylor Swift turf and have big enough hooks to enjoy some moderate success on the charts.
RM: I would actually like to see "Me & The Rhythm" as the next single as I am sucker for that type of 80's synth-pop and I think it could do well with that trend coming back. Probably the best hook is on "Good For You" though I feel like in the whole album A$AP becomes an afterthought, which is a shame for someone who has been so good this year.
Yeah there are moments when you hear the Auto-tune come in, her voice strain to do hit some notes or even an outside vocalist to take care of the hook (Charli XCX, Chloe Angelides), which gives me qualms about embracing her fully. However there does feel like a concerted effort to try and not just be a cheesy, pop radio hit girl (or attempt at that), but rather to expose a matured individual ready to take on the world.
She probably could have used one of those extra Zedd collabs to give her another dynamite single, but it might not fit on the album.
RM: Selena Gomez turns inward with Revival, that is more of a revealing effort than any sort of reviving album. She experiments some, but is smart to remain in her lane of midtempo pop, R&B without challenging herself vocally. This is when she is at her best and the combination of instrumental and lyrics come together the best. They do fall into the trap of trying for the big pop hit and it sticks out like a sore thumb. It is commendable for her and the producer, songwriting team assembled for Revival to go for an actual album rather than a compilation of radio hits. Hopefully this is a trend we see continue in major-label pop music.
JB: Taylor Swift's best friend has clearly been paying attention. To have a successful album you have to actually make an album, and Selena Gomez and her team clearly stepped into Revival trying to do just that. Granted it's still a major pop project and as such they are going to aim to make it as diverse and dynamic as possible, one listen and it's obvious that they were concerned first in making something that speaks to their brand. Overall I think she did a solid job, and look forward to seeing standout tracks "Hands To Myself" and "Me & The Rhythm" get the single treatment.
CM: Selena Gomez isn't speaking of a total career overhaul on Revival. Instead, she's looking to show her adult self. And, through a more mature sound and a sense of confident self that I never really expected to see from her, she did it. Yes, Revival has its bumps and of course Gomez is nowhere near the best singer in the world. But, she crafted something here that is relatable, strong and fully herself. And that is commendable.
LH: I definitely saw a lot of growth from Gomez in this album, especially when compared to her earlier stuff. I have been a fan of hers for a while and it's safe to say I still am. This album had a few flaws, but I think she put together exactly what she wanted and was able to tell her story. She was able to show her flaws and accept them, while empowering others and herself. I have played songs individually from this album a lot this past weekend and I'll be continuing to play this album for quite some time. I look forward to see how she puts her tour together and how in time she will grow as an artist. In a way a see this as the start of Selena Gomez and I'm excited to see what more she has in store.