Top to bottom, Songs About People Including Myself reveals the marks of a professional musician: the elaborate but often subtly addictive melody lines, the pitch-perfect vocal performances, the well executed effects, and the expertly balanced audio production. These things are present on every track of the album, and just to sweeten the pot, The Bad Dreamers has filled the recording with a stylistically diverse selection of music.
The result is one of those rare albums that delivers on every level, making it a must-hear recording for fans of synthwave’s current relationship with modern pop music.
On the topic of style, Songs About People Including Myself is not a synthwave album, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, like so many great recordings this year, it falls within the realm of popwave music, blending elements of traditional synthwave with diverse external genres and infusing it with modern vocal deliveries and contemporary pop production. The result is wholly unique to the 2010s.
This deliberate evolution is echoed in the cover art, which is practically anti-synthwave in its minimal design, black and white realism, and unadorned text. It’s a rejection of the overly saturated neon art that has grown cartoonishly out of proportion in recent years. Only the two pink borders on the cover of Songs About People Including Myself give any real indication that the recording might be synthwave-related. Instead, the image defiantly — and rightfully — declares the album to be something new and unique.
As always, the experimentation heard on the recording is neither desirable nor undesirable in its own right, though it’s always worth acknowledging these changes to understand how and why the synthwave genre has begun its dramatic metamorphosis into new styles of music. Even more so than similar releases from Nina, The Midnight, Moonrunner83, Gunship, Wolf Club, and many more this year, Songs About People Including Myself has pulled away from the outrun electro that sits at the heart of the synthwave genre. Instead of adhering strictly to ‘80s nostalgia, the album represents a bold evolution outward and onward beyond the past decade of retro synth music.
This distinction is plain to hear throughout the recording, though it’s never more apparent than on “Reach You.” The glitchy, symphonic notes that open the track are quickly joined by a soulful vocal performance that can’t be compared to anything in the realm of synthwave but clearly echoes pieces of the Billboard Hot 100 of recent years. Even influences from contemporary hip-hop artists like Drake become apparent when the song shifts into a softly spoken verse section, particularly when the delivery is peppered with brief vocal accents like “yeh” at the end of a lyrical thought.
The opening chorus vocals return throughout the song accompanied by full backing instrumentation, and the section works perfectly to balance the low-key approach of the verse. The result is a glossy but deceptively understated slice of contemporary pop, and “Reach You” is one of the brightest highlights on the recording.
Other entries carry slightly more retro influences, including the outstanding “California Winter” that opens the album. However, instead of the ‘80s Euro disco, video game soundtracks, and movie scores that early synthwave artists pulled from, “California Winter” instead harkens back to a certain style of adult contemporary music that was prevalent at the end of the decade and the start of the 1990s: the era’s releases from Phil Collins, Kenny Loggins, and Peter Gabriel seem to hold lineage in the track’s rolling instrumentation and expertly composed vocal melody.
Several other pieces on the recording fall roughly within the style of “Calfornia Winter,” including the next two entries on the tracklist, “Who You Run To” and “How to Disappear.” As with the opener, each of these delivers highly memorable chorus hooks without falling into the grating melodies and repetitive effects of The Midnight’s recent Kids album. There’s a surprising subtlety behind the songwriting that gives creations like “Who You Run To” a slow burn, allowing them to improve significantly across repeat listens.
The strength of the music is supplemented with lyrics that manage to remain humble and grounded while being perfectly poetic. “How to Disappear” in particular is a top-tier breakup song that hits a range of emotions with a mature attitude, making it distinct from the usual self-pitying approach to the subject.
The album only adds to its uniqueness when it reveals its dark side, first on “Part Time God” and then on the absolutely inspired “Hit Me Harder.” The first of these tracks again echoes the early ‘90s, this time with the era’s industrial and alternative rock music in mind. It’s not a stretch to say that “Part Time God” is reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, and although it’s one of the least interesting tracks in its own right, it further demonstrates The Bad Dreamers’ versatility and diverse range of influences.
“Hit Me Harder,” however, practically justifies purchase of the album by itself. As a noir-flavored narrative, it’s arguably the most singular entry on the recording, and it’s also one of the most remarkable creations to emerge from the broader synthwave genre at any point in its history. Synthwave in general rarely aspires to be more than simple, accessible electronic music, and is almost never an art form in the full sense of the word. Naturally, all music is a creative endeavor, though there’s rarely any deeper concept behind synthwave songwriting or meaningful interplay of compositional elements that would elevate it to actual art.
“Hit Me Harder” rejects the notion of superficial synth music, delivering a brilliantly composed track that tells the tale of a tragic romance. This story is told equally through the lyrics and music, building patiently across its first half through smartly succinct lyrics and a measured tone with subdued instrumentation. The tale reaches its violent conclusion with the darkly dramatic lyrics:
She knew exactly how to taunt him
He struck exactly where she wanted
He couldn’t see the gun she hid beneath her garter
She pulled it out, she said “you should’ve hit me harder”
Punctuated by a single gunshot, the music then erupts into an industrial-heavy rhythm that pounds out the back half in conjunction with ghostly ambient tones for a haunting conclusion to the track. Significantly, this half is entirely instrumental, signifying the death and silence brought on by the gunshot.
It’s hard to say enough about the song, not just on its own terms, but for synthwave and its various evolutions in general. At a time when the main genre is collapsing under the weight of simple-minded and crudely composed music — with some producers publicly justifying their half-hearted creations by claiming that synthwave is not an art form — “Hit Me Harder” is a valuable statement about possibilities. The song is not overly complex or progressive in its structure, but it’s exceptional in its design and execution.
Synthwave (and more recently popwave) doesn’t need to be complicated to be a meaningful art form, and a greater number of “artists” in the genre should be confident and ambitious enough to take themselves and their music seriously. Instead of lazily resigning themselves to simplicity, the goal for creators should be to work within the framework of the style to explore possibilities, and The Bad Dreamers’ new album is practically a clinic for how it’s done.
Although “Hit Me Harder” is the most pronounced example of The Bad Dreamers’ careful song design, many of the radio-friendly pieces like “California Winter” and “Reach You” are no less deliberate. There’s a delicate balance to the best tracks on the album that reveals patience and attentiveness in the songwriting process, and that effort pays dividends on the listening end.
It’s safe to say that Songs About People Including Myself is one of the most significant synthwave-related releases of the year, and possibly of the past decade. It’s also likely the best popwave album of 2018. Like other excellent recordings this year, the album dramatically advances the evolution of the popwave sound, but unlike some of the most visible releases in the style, it’s filled with a healthy amount of music containing diverse songwriting approaches and thoughtful compositions. The top-notch audio production and faultless vocal delivery further lift The Bad Dreamers to the top of the pack of modern artists.
Songs About People Including Myself is a rare musical jewel, and it’s a must-hear recording at a pivotal moment in synthwave’s history.
Rating: 95 / 100 (Outstanding)
Buy the Album: Bandcamp