The newest in a long line of bands taking the sounds of the 80s and create something seemingly new out of them, The Naked and Famous are a five-piece group from New Zealand, specializing in synthesizer-drenched pop music.
Their debut album, Passive Me, Aggressive You is a fairly strong release, but it’s also pretty faceless. The band don’t carve out much of an identity for themselves over these 13 tracks, and in a time where virtually every indie band has at least a tinge of 80s influence – whether it be a retro keyboard, arena-rock guitars, or reverb-heavy drums – that’s a real problem.
But let’s talk about the album itself. The Naked and Famous typically have three speeds – drone-y shoegaze with synths in lieu of guitars, sort of like if the genre had been discovered and shot into the mainstream about a decade before it actually was; bubbly, pretty synthpop; and dark, aggressive quasi-industrial heaviness. It’s actually surprising how well these various elements fit together – the stylistic shifts can be jarring at times, but for the most part, the album miraculously works as a whole.
The problem is that while the songwriting is solid overall, with some thick, beautiful textures and catchy hooks, they don’t really have much of an identity, and a lot of that comes down to their inability to pin themselves to one specific genre. Generally, artists branching out and trying different styles is a good thing, but that only works if the artist in question already has a highly individual sound – something that The Naked and the Famous simply haven’t acquired yet. This leads to a lot of the material sounding like tributes to other bands – the synthpop songs like “Punching in a Dream” and “Young Blood”, with their lush keyboard tones, pulsating beats, and high-pitched vocals, sound so much like Passion Pit that I actually had to check my iPod to make sure it hadn’t pulled a switcheroo on me. Songs like “Frayed” and “Jilted Lovers” are like My Bloody Valentine but with the heavy guitar effects eschewed in favour of acid-washed synth tones. And “A Wolf in Geek’s Clothing” sees the band channelling Nine Inch Nails-aggression out of absolutely nowhere.
It doesn’t help that the lyrics contain the same vague, pseudo-intellectual platitudes that riddle the genre. Take this example, from opener “All of This”: “as the plans turn into compromise/the promises all turn to lies/the spite builds up and it can’t get through/passive me aggressive you.” Pretty empty, right? The whole album is like that.
That being said, there are a couple moments on the record that are breathtaking – “Spank” absolutely rips it up, electronic tension-building perfectly melding with a positively massive stadium rock groove, and “The Sun” uses a simple drum beat, subdued feel, and really interesting vocal layering to fantastic effect.
To be honest, Passive Me, Aggressive You, like a lot of albums with an 80s-style aesthetic, really polarizes me.
Sometimes, I listen to it and I’m totally with the band and the sound that they’re bringing, but other times I’m actually repulsed by it, in that it literally makes my stomach turn. In fact, I’ve had the two opposite opinions alternating with each listen of this album. So at the end of the day, I’ll give this a tentative recommendation. It’s well-crafted and has some catchy tunes, but The Naked and Famous are a long ways off from attaining the unique sound that they hint at on some of their better songs, and if you hate the sound of 80s pop, or are getting sick of this whole retro thing, you’d best stay far, far away from this debut. Otherwise, go ahead and dig in.