Genre: Alternative Rock, Synthpop
Favorite Tracks: “Learn to Live,” “No Roots,” “Lash Out,” “Speak Your Mind,” “I Don’t Hold a Grudge”
2018 marked the 30th birthday of the Alternative Rock chart. While it’s probably in a better spot than it was 10 years ago when Staind, Seether, and Shinedown were topping the chart, the last few years have only further cemented its reputation as a collection of songs you recognize from that commercial you saw one time. There were two major bright spots this past year, one from a rookie and one from a veteran. The first was Twenty-One Pilots’ release “Jumpsuit,” one of the most visceral songs in the chart’s history, and I can only hope that it is the harbinger for more grimy industrial tones in the future. The second was Alice Merton’s “No Roots,” a world-conquering ode to her constant migration as a child, and a follow-up EP only further displayed her versatility.
In an age of over-compression and over-production, it was so refreshing to hear music so loose and groove-driven on the charts again. Merton had some obvious influences: in an interview with Atwood Magazine, she cited Florence and the Machine, Regina Spektor, and The Killers as her favorite artists, and it’s easy to see the theatricality and stage presence of Florence, the enduring quirkiness of Spektor, and The Killer’s blend of slick disco and sweaty garage rock. However, rather than feel like a disconnected mess, Merton’s debut MINT reflects the constant traveling that inspired her big hit, a song of her experiences and the inspirations that got her through it.
The instrumentation will be familiar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of alternative radio or indie synthpop: funky bass, wiry guitars, jagged synths, and accents of piano. However, what sets MINT apart is its attention to groove and restraint. The fat bass of “No Roots” was the first indication that Merton knew how to write hooky melodies, but she proves it over and over again here with the even lower bass groove of “Funny Business” and the soulful piano backbeat of “I Don’t Hold a Grudge,” which hits all the same notes as John Newman’s brilliant “Love Me Again.” Her more admirable accomplishment is pulling the same tricks while somehow diversifying the tones enough to keep things interesting. The pitch shifted vocal fragments, pseudo-EDM sub-bass, or twinkling, plucky synths could distract from the personal feel by feeling like concessions to a mainstream sound, but they are used sparingly enough to maintain their impact, and the very loose, open production allows each element to stand out and add some wonky flavor.
Besides the production, the stickiest glue is Merton and her hoarse alto range. Florence Welch would be proud of her fan, as both possess limitless charisma and are just as compelling while poised and controlled as they are when letting loose. Tight multi-tracking and jazzy slurs give her delivery so much character and force. The ballad “Honeymoon Heartbreak” shows off her widest range, as she starts composed before cooing over the bridge and belting on the final hook. She has not changed up her writing style much from “No Roots,” as she confesses her innermost feelings in very direct ways that support her singing style. Several songs, like “Funny Business” and “Why So Serious,” even comment on her newfound fame, which can result in a horrible, insular ouroborus that isn’t even convincing on a debut. Fortunately, this is not “In One Ear” by Cage the Elephant, as she tackles the topic with knowing self-deprecation and introspection. I wasn’t crazy about “Why So Serious” as a single due to its poorly-chosen title, but it works perfectly as a closer by looping back to the same lesson from the opener: even with all the fame, Merton still wants to live recklessly with no regrets or consideration for consequences, an ideal all musicians should aspire to.
Some have complained about an abundance of filler on MINT, which isn’t surprising when an artist with a giant hit feels pressured to capitalize on their success, but even the most disposable moments at least feel like Merton tried something different. Even “2 Kids,” the worst song on the record due its most blatantly commercial background vocals and a rather underwhelming main guitar phrase, has a certain jubilance and campfire sing-along charm to it. Such an aesthetic clashes hard with the rumbling sub-bass, but Merton could apply this same tune to stripped-back, acoustic instrumentation and it would work fine. “Trouble in Paradise” is burdened with melodramatic imagery and finger-pointing without the story beats to justify them, but the nocturnal vibe and the sizzling, dramatic guitar tone in the bridge are definitely ideas I’d like to see more of from Merton. If I was to point to one overarching flaw with this song and a few others, it would be a lack of defined pre-choruses that hurt the overall flow, but it’s not enough to kill the record’s energy.
I could list about a dozen or so artists I was reminded of listening through MINT, from BANKS to Taylor Swift, from Metric to Haim, yet it manages to feel fresh and new. After the Revivalists sadly failed to translate the spectacle of “Wish I Knew You” into a full album, Alice Merton did not disappoint and she easily lives up to the potential of her breakthrough smash. It replicates what made “No Roots” work so well without being confined by it, maintaining the infectious grooves and earnest enthusiasm through a series of different musical frameworks that would seem disorganized if Merton did not bless them with warmth and character. Star quality is not a tangible or often useful concept, but I feel confident in stating that Alice Merton has it.