The Neighbourhood Return With a Set of Lovesick Songs

Newbury Park’s The Neighbourhood created a stir with their 2013 debut, “I Love You,” drawing attention to their unique blend of dark electro pop and sunny, west coast guitar rock. They’ve waited until their third release to go the self-titled route, suggesting that they view their latest offering as a statement of intent. Released in tandem with an EP comprising songs that didn’t make the album cut, the new record showcases the band excelling in their niche.

The opener, “Flowers,” conjures an ‘80s gothic synth pop outfit that has delegated vocal duties to a 16-year old surfer for the choruses, and apparently to one of Jim Henson’s Muppets for the verses. The next track, and first single, “Scary Love,” continues much in this vein, only abandoning the Muppet, to great success. By the third song, “Nervous,” the band appears to have, set up shop directly on the beach, donned acoustic guitars, and settled in effortlessly. The entire record shuttles between these two modes: dancing the night away to new wave hits in a dark nightclub with fog machines (“Softcore,” “Stuck with Me,”) and staring at the horizon reflectively, strumming guitar and sipping on an agave-sweetened smoothie (“Blue,” “Too Serious.”)

Singer Jesse Rutherford is actually 26, but that’s only a technicality. His chorus melody in “Revenge,” sounds to have been influenced by that of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” and the subject matter of his lyrics generally matches the sound of his voice. The predominant theme that permeates nearly every song is insecurity. In “Scary Love,” Rutherford worries, “you’re too pretty for me.” In “Nervous,” he declares, “You’ve got me too nervous to speak / so I just won’t say anything at all.” Moments later, he goes back on his word, and begs, “Kiss me and hug me.” In “You Get Me So High,” he asks, “if you can just let me know if it’s okay to call you when I’m lonely.” All of this makes a convincing case for his claim, in “Void,” that “My insecurities are my own worst enemy.” Since this is a topic that male singers typically shy away from, Rutherford’s unabashed focus on it makes him a voice for boys worldwide who worry that their girlfriends’ selfies are prettier than their own.

Rutherford demonstrates his dynamic vocal range to considerable emotive effect, especially the way he alternates seamlessly between breathy angst-ridden utterances and gliding R&B stylings, as in “Nervous.” Contemporary R&B has come to be associated with the liberal indulgence of melisma, baby-voice falsetto, and an unapologetically vulgar vernacular that presents the crudest sexual language as if it’s romantic poetry — think any R. Kelly song. “Rock ‘n’ roll,” and “R&B,” once interchangeable descriptors, have followed widely divergent trajectories over the years, with R&B distinctly occupying the greater domain of hip hop and remaining confined to pop music with a vaguely “urban” sensibility,“ while the term “rock” has been applied so broadly as to have become practically meaningless, but still universally conjuring the idea of live bands.

On its face, The Neighbourhood is a band, with guitars, bass, and drums. They play a lot of electro pop, but many people will be quick to describe them, loosely, as a “rock” band. Listening to singer Jesse Rutherford, however, one often feels as if one could be listening to, say, The Weeknd. The vocal melodies of songs such as  “Softcore,” “Revenge” are clearly lifted from the modern R&B songbook. If not immediately apparent, it’s because it’s done so well that the effect is seamless. Anyone who doesn’t recognize it need only compare these songs to “Sadderdaze,” in which that influence is markedly absent. The former two tracks also bear a hip hop influence in their use of auto tune. It’s a sparing and effective use, accentuating bits here and there. At other moments, it sounds like Rutherford might not actually be using auto tune, but mimicking it, as in when he sings the titular word of “Nervous.” Whatever he’s doing, it works.

Hip hop-style explicitness is in the lyrics too, as when Rutherford sings earnestly, “You look better when you first wake up / Than anybody else I’ve fucked.” Plenty will cringe from such bits, and few might sense the impending downfall of civilization. Is this really what we’ve come to? Is this what lyrics have been reduced to in 2018? Fortunately, one needn’t exert one’s self to nod in affirmation, as the beat will arrange for it on its own. Yes, these are the lyrics — and so what? Isn’t this just the next step in near-century long trend toward minimalism in popular music? We can do away with all the filigree; there’ll always be a place for it in the conservatories.

The Neighbourhood might be prosaic and juvenile — but it is precisely this that accounts for much of their appeal. This is not the place to look for lofty abstractions and clever wordplay — although there is much promise in the song title,”Sadderdaze.” With countless bands out there struggling in vain, tongues firmly planted in cheeks, to provoke your thought and impress you, it can be refreshing to hear songs that put on no airs whatsoever, and purport to be nothing more than what they are. This is music for teenagers, and for anyone who wants to channel their inner teenager. Role-play a little. You just might like it. If you’ve ever wanted to come to terms with your inner douchebag or ditz, you couldn’t ask for a better soundtrack —

This isn’t to undervalue the music, only to convey the extent of its cheesiness. That said, The Neighbourhood is phenomenal band in their own arena. And for what it is, every song on the new album is a masterfully crafted bit of pop perfection. There is no filler on this record. Each track could be a single. And aside from the one Muppet bit on “Flowers,” nothing sounds awkward, forced or strained. Throughout the album, punchy synth lines, eerie washes, pre-chorus dramatic pauses, reverberating snares, subtly trap-like high hats, and string flourishes are all executed just perfectly. There are many moments, such as in the jazz-tinged “Blue,” when Mikey Margott’s basslines make all the difference. Overall, the entire band is in top form — and although he still seems to be coming to grips with it, Jesse is too.

The Neighbourhood” is available March 9 on Apple Music