Bart Graft is easily one of the most prolific creators within the synthwave genre, cranking out roughly 10 albums within the past 18 months. That kind of output is staggering, and if you think it’s impossible to produce that much content and maintain any serious level of quality, you’re right. Wading through Bart Graft’s discography is like looking through an artist’s sketchbook, flipping past abandoned ideas and forgettable compositions that come across as warm-ups more than presentable pieces of finished art. Occasionally a song will stand out with enough detail and inspiration to deserve more than a few moments of attention, though it’s exceedingly rare to find a track worth returning to for a second listen.
At its best, Modern Life is a superficially attractive release delivered with a cheery synthpop style in the relative vein of early Mitch Murder. Dulcet synth tones bounce along on the satisfyingly thick bass notes while a stiff, almost mechanical beat holds the pieces together. “The Day Begins” is one of the album’s better efforts, and it’s a perfect example of the suburban, workaday tone Bart Graft has crafted for Modern Life. The tone itself succeeds admirably, and it’s easy to fall in love with the deliberately naive musical world, which often feels like the soundtrack to an ‘80s reboot of Leave it to Beaver.
Yet the story told on Modern Life is a depressingly shallow one, and each song provides only a brief glimpse into the heavily manicured suburbs. A fitting comparison is a movie with beautiful set design and cinematography but a lazy story and absent-minded editing. If “The Day Begins” brings to mind an early morning for a young businessman, then the entire track is him brushing his teeth. The music never progresses beyond the idea expressed in its first 30 seconds, and the dollhouse allure of its tone quickly turns from intrigue to tedium, much like an actual morning routine.
The following track, “Easy Street,” is more of the same, wearing out its welcome to an even greater extent thanks to a needless four-and-a-half-minute running time that never deviates from its central composition. As with thousands of other pedestrian synthwave albums, the songs fall into a groan-inducing cycle of repetition that makes it easier to reach for the skip button than endure the music to its conclusion.
This complaint can be made for every entry on the album, and unfortunately, the minimal variation within each one is echoed across the creative breadth of the full recording. The result is the music equivalent of combing hair and brushing teeth for 40 minutes. Within the attractively sculpted, pastel world of Modern Life, the songwriter’s storytelling never allows listeners to even leave the bathroom.
None of the melodies linger in the memory once they’ve stopped playing, and the entire album, although commendably polished, passes with a lack of depth and nuance that renders Bart Graft’s suburban simulation almost completely sterile. Even tracks like “In Colour” with its high-energy funk bassline, and “Vision to the Youth,” which opens with a raucous electric guitar riff and relatively uptempo rhythm, eventually migrate back into the steady, unremarkable ping of Modern Life‘s signature melodic approach. A handful of ambient and post-rock pieces slide through as well, though they are so underdeveloped that they barely register in the ears as meaningful music, falling well short of the best ambient and cinematic synthwave.
It’s hard not to come away from Modern Life feeling like it’s packed with wasted potential and diluted creative energy. Several entries have the earmarks of great songs, they simply haven’t been developed enough to rise above the glut of disposable synthwave in 2018. If the energy spent on Bart Graft’s previous 10 releases was focused instead on one or two solid albums, they could very well shine as some of the best recordings in the modern genre. Instead, as with all Bart Graft releases, listeners are left flipping through the sketchbook of Modern Life with only glimpses of what a finished album might sound like.
Rating: 48 / 100 (Bad)
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