On ‘Weird,’ Yungblud’s Pop-Punk Pastiche Pays Tribute To His Heroes by Copying Them
Nostalgia obeys no timetable, but it does arrive in waves, and Yungblud’s album “Weird!” suggests that late ‘90s-early aughts pop punk (and just pop) is primed for a comeback. Dominic Harrison’s latest oozes with the earnest agony of teen boys with neither the conviction to go full punk nor the pipes to become real rock balladeers, but it’s the kind of pop-rock-punk pastiche that’s so earnest and oblivious that you’re certain he’s completely unaware how much of it is copied from his musical heroes. Chiefly engineered to chronicle the feelings of pre-teens whose parents finally let them go to the local skate park — only during the day, and as long as they promise not to try cigarettes if any older boys offer them one — “Weird!” offers an uncomplicated and nonthreatening greatest hits album of generationally specific influences both for the British singer-songwriter and his core fan demographic.
Listening to this record makes you realize that even if you’re no longer in a place where you need to hear young musicians work through their feelings by screaming semi-melodically over propulsive bass lines, the world is constantly replenishing itself with teens and twenty something that do. So when Yungblud expresses the desire to “get stuck between your teeth like cotton candy/ so you remember me darling” on “Cotton Candy,” you have to ignore the musical toothache that promptly comes on and recognize there are many people like him who think saying “I’m losing myself in you” is an end-of-the-world confession and not a desperate cry for help.
At least he comes by his English accent honestly, giving a convincing snarl on tracks like “Strawberry Lipstick;” but as an artist, his worldview is about as authentically punk as the clearance section in a Hot Topic. So when he sings “fuck all of the oppression and the self-doubt,” there’s no specificity about the forces holding him back, or any substance about the empowerment he claims to combat them — especially when the main thrust of the song is repeatedly asking a girl to “take it easy on me.” Meanwhile, to borrow the title of a pretty famous David Bowie song on his original composition “Life On Mars” is one thing, but he starts the track with “she was only seventeen/ had the saddest pair of eyes that you’ve ever seen,” he essentially revisits the same storytelling territory without either updated insights about this fictional female protagonist and her beleaguered world view or the self-awareness that he’s cribbing from one of the all-time greats.
It’s not imaginatively titled, but “Love Song” is one of the album’s standouts as he sings out with an approximation of the effortless sincerity of someone like Justin Bieber while counseling his partner, “I’m doing my best/ nobody told me how to love myself / so how can I love somebody else?” There’s certainly something powerful about giving an honest assessment of what you need, and can give — but surely there’s a way to do it that isn’t this perfunctory? But if the ballad feels absolutely destined to become a singalong staple at future concerts while teenagers sob together in the dark, tracks like “Super Dead Friends” evoke his influences so strongly — this time, Beastie Boys, and in particular, “Sabotage” — you almost worry for him that playing them live will lead directly to a plagiarism lawsuit. Ditto “It’s Quiet In Beverly Hills,” which is such a shameless knockoff of Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” that it literally sounds like he’s trying to hide the violins behind his verses to avoid paying songwriting royalties.
There are a few true outliers that don’t fit in with the rest of the material on the album, like “Acting Like That,” a halfway point between Drake and Linkin Park where he problematically sings, “Heard you hooked back up with your ex/ and now you’re asleep on my doorstep/ You’re way too hot to be acting like that,” a statement that he probably thinks is a compliment but the world (and especially the recipient) hears as an unwanted judgment. And “The Freakshow” starts with vocoder harmonies that should send Imogen Heap scrambling to contact their licensing attorneys, then bizarrely stomps into a punky cover of Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” before slowing down for the chorus, singing “welcome to the freakshow / I hope that you find yourself today.”
The bummer is that the little contemporary details of his songs, such as the pulsing keyboards at the beginning of “Weird,” hint at much more interesting songs than the sub-Harvey Danger / Blink-182 tracks they evolve into once he starts singing. It’s not that these are bad songs, per se, but they’re designed for starry-eyed tweens, not adults, and there are already so many like them both from that era and right now that a record like this doesn’t even feel “retro,” it feels like a strategic career miscalculation. What’s more intriguing but not explored enough is his seeming fascination with this very English EMF / Soup Dragons sound from the earlier ‘90s when rock bands were framing songs around drum loops, flirting with raucous pub music and dance floor jams at the same time; he touches on it a bit with “Charity” and more deeply on “Ice Cream Man,” but returns so quickly to petulant mall punk posturing that there’s not enough time to fully appreciate its relative uniqueness in this hodgepodge of vintage sounds.
Ultimately, “Weird!” pays tribute to the conspicuously formative artists who stoked Yungblud’s creative fire in only the way a member of Gen Z can, offering empty platitudes over a collection of songs without enough focus to be about a single subject or sentiment — and in some cases style — for four consecutive minutes. Then again, young artists trying too much too soon with not enough discipline or maturity is a timeless cornerstone of the music industry, and often a path to greater breakthroughs in the future — so maybe it’s fair to cut him some slack; but if there’s one lesson to take away from middle-of-the-road pop-punk that’s so generic that he should probably lawyer up before releasing a few of the tracks as singles, there is literally nothing about this record that qualifies as weird.
“Weird!” releases Dec. 4 on Apple Music