Album Review: Sunglasses Kid – Graduation

Until this year, Sunglasses kid was among a large population of synthwave artists who showed promise but hadn’t produced enough material to fully establish themselves within the scene. At last, Sunglasses Kid delivers a full-length album to properly demonstrate his substantial musicianship, and Graduation comes through with just about everything a fan could have hoped for. The flawless sound production and detailed technical execution are enhanced by a host of guest artists who create unique and memorable songs, some with stellar vocal performances, and the resulting effort is one of the best the genre has seen.

After kicking off with a nostalgic, high-school-themed sound clip, the album gets down to business with the title track. “Graduation” signals its intentions with a distorted ’80s-era VHS jingle before opening up into a relaxed, soothing song with sparkling melodies and a crisp rhythm that captures the feeling of a seaside drive as well as any song in the genre. The track is a well-chosen opener, and its casual approach serves as a warmup for some of the more complex songwriting to follow.

Unfortunately, the momentum built by the opener falters when it runs into the kitschy and contrived hip-hop track, “80’s [sic] Baby.” Musically, the Fresh Prince-style song is relatively solid, but the candy-coated sentimentality of the lyrics wears thin well before the music reaches its conclusion. The inherent nostalgia of synthwave music works well when it comes across as an unspoken feeling or an expression of a bygone time, but the conspicuous pop culture fan service of the song is overkill, and strangely seems most likely to appeal to people who weren’t yet alive in the ’80s.

After that brief misstep, the recording regains its footing with “Can’t Hide,” a massive standout track with rapid fire percussion, freestyle shuffling and slamming effects that recall classic Nu Shooz, and a brilliant vocal performance from the exceptionally talented Miranda Carey. This song checks all the boxes on the formula for a great pop tune, delivering a catchy rhythm, deep melody hooks, an excellent instrumental break (with a synthesizer solo), and first-rate vocal sections. It is unquestionably one of the best vocal-driven synthwave tracks recorded to date, and the album is worth checking out for this song alone.

As exceptional as “Can’t Hide” may be, it is improbably one-upped just two tracks later by the sublime “Just Another Day.” The song features I Am Harlequin, who is better known for her indie pop tracks. The transition to a different style seems effortless for her, however, as she lays down sultry tones and a genuinely emotional vocal delivery with complete confidence. The song explores a darker, more introspective mood than “Can’t Hide,” with soulful sax solos supplementing I Am Harlequin’s voice. The masterful buildup and gorgeous chorus hook on “Just Another Day” make it an immensely addictive piece of music that can play on repeat without wearing out its appeal.

The album’s two other vocal tracks do not fare quite as well. “Without You” featuring JJ Mist is a downtempo piece that is missing some of the detail and variety of the album’s best songs, and its chorus hook feels strained and begins to sound repetitive by the end of the song. “Runaway” with SJBRAVO is perhaps the most sparse track on the recording, with little more than a single drum beat providing the backdrop for the overly sentimental singing. The song recalls the style of ’80s ballads that were popular in Europe like David Hasselhoff’s “Flying on the Wings of Tenderness,” and the sappy tone feels out of character with the rest of the album and the broader synthwave genre.

On a recording with such a high number of vocal tracks, it would be easy to overlook the instrumental songs that occupy the spaces in between, but that would be a mistake. Many of them are memorable and even exceptional, such as the freestyle-fueled “Boyz Will B Boyz” featuring Myrone, the dreamwave vibe of “Sunshine” with D/A/D, and the nimbly melodic “Venice Beach” with Phaserland. Even the quirky bonus track, “Freshman,” also featuring Phaserland, is notable for its bright melodies and effectively wistful ’80s and early ’90s sound. The song could pass for a lost outro theme from Saved by the Bell, and it works perfectly as the closing track on the album.

Taken together, Sunglasses Kid’s debut full-length is much like a large social gathering. For the most part, everyone has a great time and gets to hang out with their friends, but a few people butt heads and a couple others become emotional and act out inappropriately. With its disparate influences, it is unlikely that most listeners will enjoy the album in its entirety. That is a testament to Sunglasses Kid’s willingness to branch out and challenge himself with different musical styles, but it is also the result of a patchwork of ideas that do not necessarily work well together. Just like a high school party, not everything on Graduation ends for the best, but it is still a remarkable experience with a few unforgettable moments.

Rating: 88 / 100