The Chainsmokers Strive to Craft Songs From EDM Kludge on ‘World War Joy’

The Chainsmokers’ have come a long way since zeroing in on the zeitgeist with their 2014 breakthrough single “#Selfie.” They’ve remixed everyone under the sun, and surpassed even Calvin Harris as reigning DJ-producer hitmakers. Ever since Andrew Taggart decided to try his hand at singing on the duo’s 2016 single “Closer,” he and partner Alexander Pall have transformed into something more akin to a band. They’ve modified their live setup to include keyboards, drum pads, and samplers, and their music has seen a general shift from beat-centered, hyperactive tracks to more conventional songs still grounded in an EDM framework and spirit. For their third album, “World War Joy,” the latest step in this evolution, the duo recruit a cast of guest vocalists, and churn out a set of songs that channel their trademark sounds into broader avenues, with mixed results.   

Opener, “The Reaper” begins with gentle guitar strumming and a lush vocal backdrop courtesy of Australian singer-songwriter Amy Shark. At once, the Chainsmokers get to flashing their usual signifiers with an almost farcical predictability. They drop a beat that could just qualify as “dance” in its broadest interpretation, and Taggart begins singing, striking a safe balance between standard pop and the more electronic sounds that the group began with. Shark takes over in the bridge, and her unaffected voice is hypnotic in just its tone. But only seconds pass until it becomes time for the routine EDM fireworks. She asks, “Am I in your way-ay-ay? Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah,” and the answer seems to be yes, as the vowel sounds form the inevitable, intruding percussive buildup and drop. This “ah ah ah” trick was at its peak in 2007, when Rihanna’s “Umbrella” spawned a number of copycats, and today, it’s so beyond played-out that even Timbaland modestly limits his new shoutouts to a single “ay.” All things considered, the song makes for a rather underwhelming beginning.    

“Family” is a readymade single, even though it isn’t actually one. With a singalong chorus, a faint bass drum pulse, and uplifting lyrics about family, It’s got all the bases covered. The track is a collaboration with Kygo, who resides in the same nebulous DJ/Producer/Songwriter sphere as the Chainsmokers, and this makes for a seamless union, and some gleeful, fist-bumping fun. “See the Way” features Sabrina Claudio on vocals, and she puts her stamp on the sound, although it’s hardly enough to save a song with a refrain of, “I go from ‘Okay, I’m okay’ to ‘I’m not okay.’” Somehow, this is what it has come to. On “P.S. I Hope You’re Happy,” worlds are beginning to collide in unsettlingly bizarre ways. The designedly slipshod, juvenile stylings of Blink-182 are a punk rock vestige that the band has incorporated into their own, largely tongue-in-cheek brand of music. But it takes the whole package to make sense. Blink vocals thrown over EDM just seems like an incomprehensibly bad feature. Still, this song is one of the more interesting of the lot, as the Chainsmokers and Blink avoid obvious moves, and manage to combine pop punk and EDM dynamics in some novel ways.  

Come “Push My Luck,” one of just two songs without a featured singer, the Chainsmokers still sound surprisingly like Blink-182, in the vein of something like “Adam’s Song.” There is a repetitive guitar figure that ends up having a trance-like effect, and the dubstep-style punctuation marks that make their way into nearly every track are here indulged with especial restraint. “Takeaway” features another captivating voice, Lennon Stella of Canadian duo Lennon & Maisy. She and Taggart sing the same melody together, like Shark and Haggart on the opener, not to be bothered with harmonies. At any rate, they could hardly sound better together. The song does, however, resort yet again to the godforsaken repeating vowel sound maneuver, with Stella singing, “Your heart for takeaway, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah / Hey, hey, hey,” prompting the bass drop. “Call You Mine” is an especially solid track, largely due to the involvement of Bebe Rexha. Music like this is largely about immediate impact, and there’s generally a reason DJs who pride themselves on garish sound effects usually seek out powerful singer, with real pipes, to sing their choruses. The excesses complement one another, and this is precisely what happens in this song, with Rexha’s cascading melodies building to a thrilling peak that makes the whole bass drop routine a bit more tolerable. 

As musicians with a DJ background, the Chainsmokers tend to write songs that sound like remixes, which allows for something of a fresh perspective, but also has certain pitfalls. Consider that the most compelling remixes don’t generally identify themselves as such, managing to reimagine their source material in a way that doesn’t necessarily sound forced. With a remix aesthetic as the standard, songs can easily devolve into ADHD kludges, and such is the case with “Do You Mean.” Ty Dolla $ign and German singer-songwriter bülow both feature, and both add plenty of personality to the track, but the track sounds like the result of hyperactive producers filing up every second of empty space with a trendy soundbyte. Still, it’s an effective, unifying singalong, with refrains of “Show me that you mean it.” “Kill You Slowly,” with no guest artist, is a fine example of the Chainsmokers left to their own devices. Taggart is on top form with his vocals, and the production withdraws from the usual tricks of trade, with an understated arrangement with a trap-ish drum track and aquatic, rippling sounds. Considering the group’s transition into more singer-songwriter territory, it’s telling that both this and the closer “Who Do You Love” are among the singles teased in advance of the album’s release, as both are more of that type. The latter, a collaboration with Australia’s 5 Seconds of Summer, might just be the most perfect pop song they’ve crafted to date,

“World War Joy” captures the Chainsmokers at a pivotal point in their evolution, and offers a fair balance of trademark sounds and new musical directions. Long-term fans of the duo will find plenty of the usual thrills to enjoy, despite the move toward more traditional songs. The new sounds should come as no surprise, as they’ve been a long time in the making. This album is not for connoisseurs, but for straight-shooters. The Chainsmokers excel at mastering formulas, and churning out bangers, and they do that here. With their roster of guest features, they manage to cover an impressive range, while still always sounding like themselves. The EDM core that they build their songs on has become quite stale, and the album suffers considerably as a result. Still, they have managed to keep things somewhat fresh, and will likely continue to do so. 

World War Joy” is available Dec. 6 on Apple Music.