Album Review: The Midnight - 'Kids'

24 September 2018 | 5:46 pm | Alex Sievers
Originally Appeared In

Youth is wasted on the young.

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In 2017, Patrick Metzger wrote a piece called "The Nostalgia Pendulum: A Rolling 30-Year Cycle Of Pop Culture Trends". His essay, which is absolutely worth your time, summed up the ebb and flow that comes with people romanticising past trends and aesthetics; that three decades is more or less the sweet-spot for current generations to discover what art and media came before, reference it and take influence from it. Thus creating a "what's old is new again" effect. As Metzger called it, it's like a pendulum swinging back and forth. We can see this in many different mediums and industries today: T.V., film, art, video games, fashion, and of course, music.

As far as retro pop and synthwave go, this is true of those genres: a style pendulum swinging between the sounds, tones, ideas and production of this decade and of the 80s. In the case of The Midnight - producer Tim McEwan and vocalist Tyler Lyle - this love for 80s culture isn't just some romantic post-age obsession. Rather, it's a time period that they themselves experienced as children. A time they quite clearly have so much love and appreciation for, as is reflected in every aspect of their art and musical output. Speaking of, newest record 'Kids' is another endless summer for the American synthwave/pop duo. If last year's incredible EP, 'Nocturnal', was a rain-soaked noir-city at night, then 'Kids' is the sun-shining strip malls of the following afternoon. It's a joyous, fun and bright release at its endearing heart; full of great synthesised arrangements and some really solid hooks to boot.

'America 2' is about as Top 40 as The Midnight have ever gotten - what with the millennial whoops, a 'Teenage Dream'-like vibe, Fourth of July imagery, and those world-class pop-centric effects - but is still a natural evolution for them. The locked-in rhythmic flow and dreamy, calming sounds of 'Wave' make it amongst one of the band's greatest creations. It speaks to the core of why The Midnight's music profoundly affects so many and also why they've been propelled to the upper echelon of the synthwave genre. 'Wave' also sums up how important the 80s were as a turning point in many cultural views and values for the next generation coming through, with Tyler singing, "we are not a sentimental age/We don’t want our parent’s china or their ticker tape parades", echoing our own in some ways, too. 'Lost Boy' is also a quintessential Midnight track. It's definitely one of the better songs on offer; with some of the best vocal production Tyler has ever had (he's pushing into his upper register more lately which is awesome to see), and some crisp melodic guitar leads as well. Then, a song like the upbeat and cheerful 'Explorers' taps directly into that sense of escapism, wonder and adventure that childhood encapsulates, especially 80s freedom and carefree youth.

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That last part regarding 'Explorers' is also so important for the theme of 'Kids'. For me, one of the most interesting moments on The Other 'F' Word - a fantastic documentary you should watch about fatherhood amongst rock and punk musicians - was Blink-182's Mark Hoppus talking about how his parents would send him off in the morning and just expect him home at dinner. He mentions how care-free his folks were; that they didn't know where he was or what he was doing, just that they'd see him later on at home once the sun had set. Something that a lot of older generations experienced when they were kids themselves. Which was an insane idea to me when I first saw that doco because if I did that as a little kid or as a young teenager, my parents would've had a fucking heart attack. And if I was a father now, I'd be worried sick about where my kids were during the day and what they were doing. This all touches upon a central theme of 'Kids': whilst parents dealt with their adult responsibilities and the unattainable heights of Western capitalism, kids were simply left to explore the world on their own - to just be themselves.

I think most listeners and reviewers will see 'Kids' as a Peter Pan-esque statement; an "I don't wanna grow up" message. However, I find it's more a matter of while not wanting to age, it's realising that you must grow up. That while you perceive everything as being better as a child, a lot of those things won't last; a new generation will take your place and the media you once loved will die out and change. (Until three or so decades later, maybe). As stunning closer 'Kids (Reprise)' uses a children's choral section to repeat lines over driving 8-bit beats, they sing "kids are sad, parents too", "kids grow up and move away/they closed the plant and the mall arcade", eventually adding that, "we grow up and move away/the seasons past but the monsters stay". It's all very bittersweet. Stating that what we cherish as youngins will most likely not last, or at least, will never be seen or felt in the same once our youth ends. Y'know, for a bubbly, catchy and charming synthwave release, 'Kids' is actually kinda depressing when you boil it right down.

[caption id="attachment_1104184" align="aligncenter" width="760"] The artwork for 'Kids' is wonderful. One of those covers that you can "hear". (Not sure what that time stamp refers to). [/caption]

For fans of The Midnight, this new release will be a very familiar one. Those snappy, sharp-attack, 8KHZ boosted kicks, plate-reverb snares, and large toms that splash across the songs like raindrops on pavement; those percussive synth stabs, pulsating bass lines, massive electro washes, and lush arpeggios; those uplifting 80s guitar licks and solos; those sexy, warm vocal deliveries from Tyler; Tim's awesome, clean production style; and those major melodies and summery tones are all present and accounted for. It's just classic form for The Midnight. Yet as you'll see from solid new tunes like 'Lost Boy' and 'Wave', this formula still works wonders for the band. Synthwave might be running the risk of becoming stale very soon, but The Midnight don't sound uninspired here!

However, while listening through 'Kids' on the way back from work the other day, something suddenly struck me about the songwriting and instrumentation. What was this almighty revelation, you ask? Well, there's no saxophone. None at all. Nadda, zip, zero. A defining trait of their past works - those buttery smooth yet screaming saxophones - don't make their presence known on 'Kids'. Some of the group's best songs - 'Vampires', 'Crystalline', and 'Collateral', just to name a few - were so memorable and so catchy because of their respective sax sections. I'm not sure if longtime collaborator Thomas Edinger wasn't free to record parts for this new album or if the lack of sax is a conscious decision from The Midnight (most likely the case, I feel), but I do personally miss those sax leads that added so much character and energy to older songs.

That being said, I can understand why they aren't included. With The Midnight perhaps wanting to ensure that their releases aren't all identical. With a prolific output of new music coming each and every year, this might be a way for them to help off-set any listener fatigue and keep things from getting too samey for the fans. While I can understand why there's nothing in the way of saxophone on 'Kids', and while not a deal-breaker, I still notice and feel that sax absence heavily when listening through this new album.

Still, this a very well sequenced record, with each track moving onto the next one in a seamless way. The band definitely took care when piecing this track-listing together to make it all feel and sound cohesive. Yet I cannot say that I adore every single track here.

Opener 'Youth' has a sound bed that's typically what we'd expect from The Midnight musically, coming complete with voiceovers from old news reports about the "magic" of computers and the booming games industry pre-Atari botching it for all with E.T. It's an "establishing shot" for the record tonally and thematically, but not one I'll be coming back to on repeat listens, honestly. The minute-long 'Saturday Mornings' interlude is, as you might guess from the name, a call-back to Saturday morning cartoons and T.V. commercials; sampling a wide range of advertisements and shows. It's a short contextual piece, but other than that, it sadly has nothing to keep me interested in the face of the actual songs on 'Kids'. Then there's the penultimate 'Arcade Dreams', fittingly starting with the sounds of bustling arcades and retro video game soundtracks, but merely ends up as a fairly straight-forward, twinkling synth-pop instrumental for The Midnight.

'Nocturnal', other than featuring some brilliant saxophone passages, also had a handful of instrumentals to its structure. Though, the difference was that those songs really felt integral to the wider release; that they weren't skippable and that they added to the overall tone too. In this case, while the latter is true, the former isn't - these interlude parts just don't land as well. If you'll partake in my own mall arcade metaphor, there are the actual engaging machines here ('Wave', 'Explorers', 'America 2', 'Lost Boy' and 'Kids (Reprise)'), but then there's all of the background noise that you won't take much notice of ('Youth', 'Saturday Mornings', and 'Arcade Dreams'). With only nine tracks, these interludes take up more space and time than they probably should have. Perhaps with a lengthier record, this wouldn't as much of an issue for me.

The Midnight's yearly release schedule remains solid and sturdy with the nine-tracks found on 'Kids. Though, when it comes right down to it, there are only five actual good songs here and four interlude/voice-over tracks that are more or less filler. While everything is fully in-keeping with the mall arcade theme of 'Kids', and while each song slots perfectly into The Midnight's nostalgic sound and 80s aesthetic, some of it just ain't memorable or totally engaging. However, please don't miss-quote me: the good outweighs "the bad" here by miles. Whether you lived through the 80s, have a fondness for said bygone era, or just need more well-written and hooky retro-pop in your life, there's definitely plenty here for you with 'Kids'.

  1. Youth
  2. Wave
  3. Kids (Prelude)
  4. Lost Boy
  5. Saturday Mornings (Interlude)
  6. Explorers
  7. America 2
  8. Arcade Dreams
  9. Kids (Reprise)

'Kids' is out now! Relive your ever-fading childhood below: