The Midnight, pioneers of soft synthwave and catalysts of the genre’s love affair with the modern mainstream, have placed their glossy candy wrapping over yet another short-length album. The artists’ gentle instrumentation and sentimental vocal hooks hold their usual bittersweet allure, though Kids’ pervasive retro pandering occupies half-hearted filler tracks and disposable non-songs as often as otherwise.
It’s possible to pull a few gems from Kids’ brief running time, though much like last year’s Nocturnal, the album’s sweetness is shallow and becomes increasingly difficult to enjoy on repeat listens.
The Midnight are arguably the most well-known artists in and around synthwave in 2018, and their influence on the genre has become catalytic. They are the metaphoric eye of a revolutionary musical storm, one that is rapidly altering the identity of synthwave’s second generation of artists.
For this reason alone, it’s worth examining Kids from a cultural perspective as much as a musical one.
Two things are worth pointing out upfront. First, The Midnight’s innovative musical blend has increasingly little in common with the outrun music that established the synthwave genre over a decade ago. This is particularly true on their last two releases, Nocturnal and Kids. Instead, their songs are a blend of eras and genres, combining rock, folk, EDM, and pop music with ultra-modern production techniques. The result points outward to a new style of music beyond the synthwave genre.
Second, and somewhat ironically, Kids has very little in common with the music and visual aesthetic of the 1980s.
Instead, like all recent releases within the spectrum of popwave and dreamwave music, the album is a distinctly modern re-imagining of the sights and sounds of the past. It’s worth borrowing a description of popwave itself and applying it directly to The Midnight here:
Kids is the Kodachrome of synthwave music, and as Paul Simon once noted about actual nostalgia, it’s often sweeter and much different than the reality was. In essence, The Midnight examines music styles of the ‘80s through a pair of neon-colored glasses with contemporary frames, re-interpreting vintage ideas for a new generation of listeners.
The neon-pastel cover artwork for Kids is a perfect representation of this re-imagining. Despite the faux VHS distortion and 1985 analog timestamp in the lower corner, nothing about the artwork closely resembles the past.
Kids has very little in common with the music and visual aesthetic of the 1980s.
Most shopping malls of the ‘80s were still suffering an aesthetic hangover from the ‘70s and were packed with earth and cream tones and miles upon miles of wood paneling. Take another look at the neon overindulgence that is Kids’ cover art and check it against ‘80s mall reality for a moment.
Kids’ cover art is an inflated example of synthwave’s tendency to take a small slice of ‘80s pop culture and exaggerate it, in this case converting it into a neon-drenched candy land. Just as the late ‘60s were once reduced to Austin Powers’ cartoonish flower-power aesthetic, the ‘80s have now been repackaged as Kids’ fluorescent shopping mall.
In precisely the same way, The Midnight’s songs are modern pop creations offering a vision of a past that never happened, and within the immense scope of synth-based creations, they’re miles away from music produced in the ‘80s.
This is important because The Midnight’s modern spin on nostalgia is integral to their innovation and a key to their commercial success with a young, contemporary audience. Popwave is big in 2018, and it’s quickly becoming one of the most exciting and popular futures for the synthwave genre. Although other artists are currently doing it with more conviction than The Midnight, the duo remains a pivotal force in the shifting synthwave landscape.
The Midnight examines music styles of the ‘80s through a pair of neon-colored glasses with contemporary frames, re-interpreting vintage ideas for a new generation of listeners.
As for the quality of the music, the marshmallow-like nature of Nocturnal is once again present here: it’s sweet and fluffy but hardly constitutes a meal, and there’s barely enough satisfying content to linger once the album’s final notes fade away.
Fortunately, the depressive self-loathing that permeated Nocturnal is mostly absent (as are the destructive shockwaves of the saxophone), and Kids instead takes a relatively fresh look at the essence of childhood. The results are pleasant, but ultimately mixed.
There are no more than three worthwhile songs on Kids, and two of them have been previously released as singles.
The first of these is “Lost Boy,” which drifts into listeners’ ears with The Midnight’s signature muted drum beats and soft synth tones that float like lace curtains in an evening breeze. The vocals enter with their unmistakable timbre, almost as though David Gray died and came back as a synthwave singer, while a backing chorus track pitches dramatically beneath the weight of dense electronic distortion.
It’s not exactly riveting, and some listeners will certainly cringe at lyrical content like “Hold me ’til I’m not lonely anymore,” though the song holds worthwhile melodies that improve across repeat listens. In spite of the distorted chorus track becoming increasingly repetitive on each play, it’s surprisingly easy to find the lead vocal melodies of “Lost Boy” lodged in the brain hours or even days after the most recent listen.
The other notable entry is “America 2” which has by far the most engaging and worthwhile songwriting on the recording. This is what fans of The Midnight should hope for on every track. It’s a fulfillment of the duo’s strong potential as artists and can be revisited numerous times without losing its appeal.
Notably, “America 2” resembles a piece of soft rock more than anything in the realm of synthwave, and it could easily be converted to an acoustic guitar version without losing its essential characteristics. It’s a great track by any measure of melodic songwriting, and it’s the clear high point of Kids.
Unfortunately, the strength of “America 2” isn’t enough to lift up the creations that surround it.
Not only are The Midnight’s efforts to include vintage audio clips missing the soul of similar creations, they’re also about five or six years late to the party.
The album’s missteps begin early on “Youth,” a wasteful intro piece that attempts to justify its existence with ‘80s audio clips but lacks enough meaningful music to pull it off. “Saturday Mornings (Interlude)” doubles down with a redundant and crudely planned audio collage that serves precisely no purpose on the tracklist.
It’s useful to revisit creations like Mitch Murder’s “Palmer’s Arcade” from 2011 and Botnit’s outstanding “Hi-Score” from 2013 as a reference for how effectively synthwave artists have incorporated vintage voice clips in the past.
These are not those.
Not only are The Midnight’s efforts to include ‘80s audio clips missing the soul of similar creations, they’re also about five or six years late to the party. Those who are new to synthwave may feel compelled by this sterile application of vintage audio, though others will recognize the tracks as belated and half-hearted pieces of filler content.
Things fare slightly better with the rest of Kids’ actual music, though the tracks tend to slip from memory almost before they’ve finished playing. “Kids (Prelude)” is a compositionally hollow piece that doesn’t deserve a separate entry from “Kids (Reprise)” that closes the album. “Arcade Dreams” is equally shallow, delivering a comfortable but utterly mediocre instrumental dreamwave piece that feels more like an effort to pad the tracklist than a meaningful creation from an innovative synthwave act.
“Explorers” is only a little better. The vocal delivery once again echoes modern folk artists like Patrick Park, and the music pulses away with its steady beat and gentle synth tones for a pleasant, albeit unspectacular four minutes. However, as on “Lost Boy,” a distorted backing vocal track grows increasingly obnoxious on repeat listens and ultimately spoils what little enjoyment the song offers.
Of the tracks that are unique to the full release, only “Wave” holds any redeeming qualities past the fourth or fifth play, and even then it fades from memory when the recording stops.
Kids often feels like the vanilla yogurt of dreamwave: tasty at the time of consumption but difficult to recall any details about later.
The album closes on “Kids (Reprise),” a track that embodies the ambitious but awkwardly executed concept behind the album. The wide-angle, all-ages accessibility of The Midnight’s music splashes across a mawkishly sweet composition in which a chorus of children chime in as backing vocalists. There’s a deliberately ironic use of grounded lyrical content with the children’s choir, though that contrast doesn’t stop the song from devolving into a hollered nursery rhyme.
The result is more interesting in concept than as a piece of listenable music, and those who winced at some of the pitiable lyrics earlier in the album may now question why they’re listening to a children’s singalong.
It’s also worth mentioning that Kids barely crests 30 minutes. That’s a dismal display for a nine-track album, particularly as a pair of entries are actually one creation, “Kids,” that’s been split in two, and two more are valueless non-songs. Remove the voice clip tracks and the recording drops to a meager 29 minutes.
2018 has seen an explosion of excellent music within the world of popwave and dreamwave, and Wolf Club, Nina, Moonrunner83, and New Arcades are among the artists this year who have done it better than The Midnight.
As with Timecop1983’s Night Drive earlier this year, name recognition and glossy production aren’t enough to disguise the many disappointments hiding beneath Kids’ professionally packaged exterior. 2018 has seen an explosion of excellent music within the world of popwave and dreamwave, and Wolf Club, Nina, Moonrunner83, and New Arcades are among the artists this year who have done it better than The Midnight.
That said, The Midnight’s latest effort somehow remains agreeable despite some excessively emotional lyrics and vocals, a blatantly commercialized presentation, and a tendency toward vanilla yogurt songwriting. The Midnight have a remarkable skill for crafting soothing melodies, and that ability compensates for several shortcomings that would cripple other recordings.
Kids is a sugary snack of an album, and anyone willing to embrace its sappy tone and distinctively modern take on synthwave will find moments worth hearing. Just don’t expect it to hold you over until dinner.
Rating: 68 / 100 (Adequate)
The Album: Bandcamp