Album Review: The Midnight – Nocturnal

Neon-drenched album art, soothing vocals, and a soulful saxophone give the newest effort from The Midnight high curb appeal, though the shimmering and highly polished exterior conceals a surprisingly mundane creation. Once the package is home and the ribbon is off, Nocturnal’s shortcomings become conspicuous. Mediocre sound production offers little depth, the instrumental songwriting leans toward lethargy, and the vocals and lyrics are steeped in adolescent sentimentality. Listening to The Midnight is like trying to make a meal out of marshmallows: it’s sweet at first but ultimately lacks substance and staying power. Nocturnal manages to remain likable in spite of its flaws, though it never encourages greater volume or repeated listens.

The album’s most interesting aspects lie not in the melodies and rhythms, but in its complex musical heritage and frontiersman attitude on the outskirts of synthwave music. With the exception of darksynth, music from The Midnight represents the most pronounced severance of synthwave from its ‘80s roots: Nocturnal bears no resemblance to pop music or other audio creations from the ‘80s, and it has similarly little in common with foundational synthwave releases from artists like Miami Nights 1984, Kavinsky, and Futurecop! In contrast with the vibrant, authentically retro sound of artists like Damokles and Beckett in 2017, The Midnight has taken only the most modern elements of synthwave and combined them with commercial pop and electronic music from the ‘00s and ‘10sBy setting aside synthwave’s celebration of vintage video games, movie soundtracks, synthpop, and childhood nostalgia, The Midnight effectively takes the “retro” out of retrowave and aims its sights on a broader, younger audience.

The Midnight’s embrace of romanticized modern music is most evident in the emotional vocals, which are strongly reminiscent of David Gray’s White Ladder. The underlying instrumentation is similarly divergent: the soft, pastel compositions and aqueous tones of Nocturnal recall millennium-era David Gray as well as contemporary chillout tracks from artists like Dido and Moby that saturated FM radio waves of the ’00s. Even ‘90s-era Robert Miles seems to hold lineage in the recording’s dreamy atmosphere. Dashes of EDM from Deadmau5 add a recognizably modern flavor to The Midnight’s musical gumbo for a synthesis of genres with diverse and remarkable historical roots.

The Midnight’s cross-pollination of genres is evident on the opening track, “Shadows,” a moody piece that establishes Nocturnal’s melancholic personality. In order to emphasize the song’s vocals, The Midnight have sculpted their underlying composition with soft edges and a submissive attitude that help it melt away into the background each time the emotive singing enters the picture. In touch with its EDM ancestors, “Shadows” rides a single beat for its duration, creating an accessible and uncomplicated piece of music. The spaces between the verse sections are not intrinsically interesting on their own, but instead serve as a default musical space when the vocals take a break.

This presents the most significant stumbling block on Nocturnal: in the foreseeable event listeners don’t find resonance with the singing, they will have little else to compel them to stick with the recording. The Midnight have bet the house on their vocals to give personality to the attractive but featureless instrumentation, which means any instrumental version, whose existence implicitly acknowledges the divisive nature of the vocals, would be too generic and repetitive for fans of nuanced instrumental music.

Fortunately, the second entry on the tracklist, “Crystalline,” delivers the album’s most agreeable singing effort. The sparse intro is accompanied by The Midnight’s characteristically serene, introspective vocals, and the section builds nicely through its first two and a half minutes. The song hits a snag when it reaches its full form, however, as a saxophone roars into the audioscape with all the subtlety of an air raid siren. The sax is spotlighted so intensely and pushed so far forward in the mix that it shatters the careful buildup of the intro. The song seems lost after the concussive blast of the sax interlude and stumbles back into the intro, proceeding to alternate between the two sections rather half-heartedly for the rest of its six-minute duration. The great potential of “Crystalline,” promised by the carefully designed intro and fulfilled in part by an elegant vocal contribution, is consequently left to flap in the wind.

“Collateral” is the album’s first instrumental piece, and from a compositional standpoint, is surprisingly less ambitious than its preceding tracks. The ambient sound of a rainy city adds a likable, though somewhat heavy-handed backdrop to the piece. It’s accompanied by a light rhythm and gentle synthesizer tones that dance across the rainy musical streets, and the piece moves along without serious issues until the flat-footed saxophone returns. It enters with slightly more grace than on “Crystalline,” this time gently beating down the other musical elements before leaving the scene to allow a handsome effects-laden guitar solo to play clean-up.

Beneath the solos, the song’s rhythm remains static for the duration, absent-mindedly clicking along in the same apathetic manner as on “Shadows.” Small percussive elements do little to diversify the sound of the changeless beat, and the gentle flow keeps interest levels to a minimum. Remarkably, as the song coaxes its listeners with soft rhythms and conservative melodies, the recurring sax begins to sculpt the song into something surprisingly similar to smooth jazz.

The Midnight returns to a vocal track on “River of Darkness,” a somber entry infused with a casual amount of self-loathing. As the lyrics nonchalantly hint at suicide with a breathy conclusion to the verse, the saxophone once more crashes into the picture like the musical equivalent of the Kool-Aid man. The song is bookended by an audio clip of a man poetically addressing the longing for an ex-lover who’s “moved on,” effectively romanticizing a certain kind of self-pity and martydom. It’s a curious conceptual choice, and along with the duo’s modern commercial influences, reinforces the sense that The Midnight’s target demographic is considerably younger than the average synthwave fan who remembers the ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Bizarrely, “Nocturnal” is easily the album’s least interesting entry, grinding away on a middling rhythm with unremarkable melodies that ping and throb their way through the piece. The song is somehow as inoffensive as it is unremarkable: it never urges the listener to hasten on to the next track, though it offers no incentive to actively listen to it either. The plain structure is worsened by the album’s flat sound production, which is missing the expansive and three-dimensional quality of the best synthwave albums. The title track’s most redemptive aspect is the conspicuous absence of the compositional wrecking ball that is The Midnight’s big shot saxophone.

By the time “Nocturnal” concludes, the nature of the album has come into sharp relief. Its uncomplicated song structures, saccharine vocal contributions, and pillowy instrumental production remain consistent throughout the recording, delivering mild doses of sentimental synth music for its 41-minute running time. A pair of final tracks serve only to reinforce the placid songwriting, especially the sickly sweet “Light Years,” which features an overly sappy vocal tandem with Nikki Flores.

Nocturnal consequently feels like a perfect landing spot for those who are new to synthwave music, especially listeners accustomed to the sounds of 21st century mainstream pop and electronic. Aside from the sax’s bumbling and the forlorn vocals, the safe and inoffensive nature of Nocturnal makes it the type of recording that can be liked by nearly everyone. In fact, The Midnight has crafted an offering that is a sort of spiritual and musical parallel to a Kenny G album: it exists outside the genre to which it’s commonly attributed, and its easygoing nature and open-handed songwriting give it broad appeal capable of pulling in listeners who otherwise dislike the style. In this sense, Nocturnal might best be described as smooth synthwave, or, given the scene’s penchant for blend words, smoothwave.

Despite its inherently sympathetic tone, or perhaps as a result of it, Nocturnal holds little real value. The highly pasteurized sound of the recording and its wide open commercial allure dampen the significance of its favorable experimentation, ironically leaving it with less personality and fewer memorable moments than its unique sound would suggest. The album is charming as background music or the soundtrack to a lightly depressive musical journey, but it lacks the detail to warrant active listening and slips away upon close inspection. Aside from the acutely melodramatic vocals, Nocturnal’s boldest and most memorable moments come from the regrettably unrefined saxophone solos that crash into the soundscape of nearly every song, inadvertently endangering the dream-like state of the album.

Throughout the recording, Nocturnal’s identity as a musical marshmallow remains prevalent. The album is soft and sweet with a sentimental aspect. Its tracks are enticing and entirely unhateable. Yet just like marshmallows, the songs rapidly lose their flavor and appeal as each one is consumed. Ultimately, The Midnight’s bag of marshmallows is not hearty enough to constitute a satisfying listening experience, and despite some powerful short-term appeal, the recording leaves a lingering desire for something with greater substance and nutritive value.

Rating: 62 / 100

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