Post Malone Turns Vices Into Pure Synth-Pop in ‘Austin’: Album Review

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With “Austin,” Post Malone has finally gone full pop star — as opposed to partial “Rockstar,” or hip-hop-adjacent star, or anything else he might’ve previously represented or flirted with. The Post Malone we hear here would have been hard to imagine a few albums ago, when he was employing guest rappers by the boatload (there are none on the new record) and embracing trap sounds (also pretty much now absent). If he was going to turn himself from a part-time rapper into something else, you might have guessed he’d become a rock dude, like Machine Gun Kelly. But no. “Austin” is his bid to make something so unabashedly pop that it’s practically a cousin to the ‘80s-inflected music Harry Styles has been making lately … with some wrinkles, obviously, that make this “Posty’s House.”

What sets it apart from that company is how nearly every catchy, singalong song, among the 18 here, has Getting Wasted as either a primary or secondary theme. Beyond the Styles comparison, you can hear echoes of the Weeknd in how Malone is able to mix a light feel with descriptions of decadence — although, listening to this album, even the Weeknd might step up and say: “Dude, maybe you need to feel your face a little more often.”

This lyrical concern is not exactly new territory for Malone. He’s been building a whole catalog around it, most recently with last year’s “Twelve Carat Toothache,” a largely depressing but fascinating project in which he sang flagrantly about bottoming out, or coming close to it. That last album was so downbeat in its confessional substance-abuse themes that it came close to feeling like Posty was daring the marketplace to accept it on its own terms as a superstar downer. (A cheerful outlier single, “I Like You,” with Doja Cat, boosted “Toothache’s” fortunes, but that song seemed thrown onto the otherwise self-loathing album almost as a gag.)

“Austin” is a much, much, much more overtly commercial record; there aren’t many tunes among the 13 that you can’t imagine sounding just fine on Top 40 radio. A good number of the songs start out with acoustic strumming, as if to betray their origins as bedroom folkie demos, before almost without exception they quickly turn into synth-pop bops. So part of the album’s greater mass palatability than its predecessor has to do with “Austin’s” plethora of hooks and canny production, which count as almost mercenary in their radio-friendliness, thanks obviously in large part to the help of two of the top co-writer-producers in the business, Andrew Watt and Louis Bell (and, on two tracks, Max Martin and Rami Yacoub). But part of it is just Malone having reverted back to a place of being able to write candidly about his love of getting fucked up without sounding like he’s about to die.

It’s hard to say whether it’s a good thing or an unhealthy thing that the singer has brought himself to such a place of acceptance about his bad habits that he was able to make such a relatively upbeat and infectious album about them again without actually changing his ways. “Twelve Carat Toothache” sounded like the beginning of wisdom, whereas “Austin” is kind of a mixture of self-realization and denial. But he’s still a really interesting songwriter — constantly knowing and owning himself, coming up with some LOL lyrics at his own expense, exploring the tensions between hedonism and, well, knowing at least a little better. The fact that he is now squeezing all these morally ambiguous autobiographical asides into perfect pop shells makes the album an intriguing pleasure, even if Posty is rarely presenting himself as upstanding.

As in, he’s literally not standing up when, in “Mourning,” he sings, “Throwing up is easy / And who put on the Commodores / That’s a nice tile floor / Wish I got to know you more.” (The song is called “Mourning” because the sunrise “is killing my buzz.”) The album almost plays out as an extended romantic triangle between Post Malone, his woman and his smokes/drinks/whatever. “Took my cigarettes and flushed ‘em down the drain / OK, OK, I’m lying,” he sings in the closing “Laugh It Off.” That quiet finale is a breakup song that expresses some sadness in letting us know the cigs won out, but not so much melancholy that you’d walk away with any expectation that the next album will be his 12-stop record.

It sounds like sobering stuff on paper. But on record, a lot of these songs play out as breezily as Styles’ “As It Was.” It’s a record that’s in constant conflict with itself, using candor and humor as a self-conscious form of denial, maybe; the easygoing infectiousness of the music always is reassuring us that there’s nothing to worry about amid all this conspicuous consumption. Perhaps someday he’ll write an album about cleaning up his ways, and this album will be remembered as an interesting stepping stone along the way, or maybe he’ll trod the subject matter of his ambivalent attitude toward his own vices indefinitely, to diminishing effect. But with some real pop maestros at the helm of “Post” — and maybe it’s time to include Malone himself under that description — it does go down easy.

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