Earlier this year, Post Malone released what he called The Diamond Collection – a compilation of the eight tracks (as well as new lead single, “Chemical”) that have achieved diamond status, a feat that finds him standing alone at the summit. Yes, really, in all of music history. None of those tracks came from last year’s Twelve Carat Toothache, a return to the spotlight after three years that saw Malone a little less concerned with the hitmaking days of his past, opening up to sometimes concerning degrees about his mental health and substance abuse issues over sparser production. On fifth studio album Austin, titled after his birth name and released 13 months later, Malone’s uncanny ear for a catchy melody returns a little more, but his days chasing hits are still seemingly over. Abandoning his tenuous ties to hip-hop entirely, Malone opts instead for 17 tracks that all essentially try to recapture the glossy pop sheen of “Circles” – though they mostly come with an even more minimalist bent – Malone continues to go into details about feelings of self-loathing and feeling trapped in a celebrity lifestyle he’d rather avoid. It’s part formulaic and tiresome, part lyrically bizarre and off-putting, and part classic Malone hooks that never leave your head – like the artist himself’s public persona, it’s a bit of a confusing mixed bag.
One of the project’s most raw and unfiltered and one of its most intense and stylized tracks both appear at the very beginning. “Don’t Understand” kicks things off with little more than a squeaky guitar hook and emotion-wringing strings, showing off Malone’s trademark vibrato. Less instrumental distraction does reveal just how weak of a vocalist he can be at times, especially when he tries out some falsetto notes – and your enjoyment of the album is likely going to hinge on how much you find his emotional outpouring touching and endearing. Despite the flubbed notes, the tune at the core is still great as Malone expresses confusion and finding love when he fails to love himself. “Something Real,” on the other hand, has a choir echoing the hook with every line of the chorus behind pounding drumbeats. There are a couple moments here where it feels like Malone is taking his usual hip hop-inflected approach, but with heavy filtering on speedier sections and reaching up to high notes that work better thrown out at the end of a braggadocious bar, it doesn’t fit as well on the poppier soundscapes and becomes mostly unpleasant to listen to. Still, Malone referencing “Fur Elise” in a line before spinning it into the classic melody might be the album’s most inspired touch. While tracks like “Novacandy” continue his recent trend of being oddly wordy, making it feel like a diaristic stream of consciousness rather than a smartly-written song intended to stick with people, “Chemical” does prove that he’s still got it despite a couple more eyebrow-raising lyrics. Comparing the strength of the physical attraction he feels to the ones he gets from the chemicals invading his bloodstream, the driving beat is reminiscent of “Blinding Lights.”
Malone still chooses his singles well – “Mourning” is another one with what might be the catchiest melody on the project, and also the closest thing to a trap beat here, although they mask it with slightly different drum textures. Still, the enjoyment is slightly dulled by further concern for Malone’s health when he talks about drinking thirty in a day. “Socialite” continues to emphasize the confusing space he currently resides in by singing about a desire to drink enough to transcend his physical body and meet God in the chorus, juxtaposing it with an X-rated joke about Shrek. “Too Cool To Die” is the most obvious “Circles” rip-off here, with another muddled message of a chorus: “The world keeps getting hotter, but I’m too cool to die,” while “Sign Me Up” is the first of two with Max Martin in the production credits. They’re both decent, with some of the most dancefloor-ready production on the project, but at this point the tracks all start blending together. One of these melodies is sure to worm its way in; just take your pick from the list of tracks with similar chords and drum patterns. Martin’s other track “Enough is Enough” fares a little better, with lyrics seemingly admitting he takes things a little too far on nights out and an echoing, anthemic hook.
The album’s third quarter is where most of its hidden gems are found alongside the aforementioned Martin track, like the short but sweet “Overdrive,” where Malone mixes in some more complex guitar bits – apparently, all played entirely by himself across the whole album – and makes the most of his tender mixed voice. It gives things a more relaxed vibe with some vaguely tropical melodies and a whistle section, as Malone sings about being willing to change anything about himself to be “cool to you.” “Hold My Breath,” as well, succeeds most when it comes to the album’s incredibly raw and intimate tunes. With touching guitar trills and harmonies that build up to an engaging half-time energy, Malone desperately pleads with his partner to stick with him, after so many things that made him happy in the past have eventually just left him back in the dumps. Hanging around these tracks as well are the sleepy and repetitive “Speedometer,” filled with car cliches, and the too-short “Texas Tea,” where Malone sings about his life being sweet like the famous beverage with more lyrics from his past life that seem out of place with his current energy. Still, if either of them got stuck in your head, I wouldn’t blame you – he’s got that kind of touch.
When it comes to standing out from the pack, the best option might be “Buyer Beware,” which has an immediately memorable synth hook and a swung tempo that sets it apart from the rest – after listening to the album for the first time, this was the one that I found myself singing for the rest of the day. After this, however, there’s not much else to discover. Malone really sounds like The Kid LAROI on “Landmine,” which isn’t great, because it’s supposed to be the other way around. Before “Laugh It Off,” a final acoustic number where Malone continues to fight through the pain, “Green Thumb” leaves listeners on a very weird and surreal note. The melody is cheerful enough to sound like it comes from a kids show, but instead it’s Malone singing about the demise of a relationship by comparing it to someone leaving a bunch of talking, personified flowers lying around in unwatered agony, cursing her name with their dying breaths as Malone looks on.
With back-to-back albums now seemingly presenting a much different narrative than Malone seems to assert with his cheerful interviews and public persona – many of which completely contradict some of the things he says on his albums – I can only hope that Malone takes a break to heal before coming back with the kind of world-dominating smash hit that could give him a second wind.
Favourite Tracks: Buyer Beware, Mourning, Hold My Breath, Overdrive
Least Favourite Track: Novacandy