The Chainsmokers Are The “21st Century Beach Boys” That Music Deserves
Their “Pet Sounds” Masterpiece Is Only One Album Away
While in the midst of a ten-mile run this past Monday morning, I noted that on The Chainsmokers’ Memories…Do Not Open album cut “Break Up Every Night” that when Drew Taggart’s booming shout exhorts “She’s got seven different personalities/Every one’s a tragedy,” that a pop-punk moment straight out of the Pete Wentz songwriting playbook that makes Fall Out Boy’s 2005 hit “Sugar We’re Going Down” “the most listened-to emo track of all time” had occurred. It was also at that moment that I realized then and there that the EDM production duo turned pop singer/composer tandem had eclipsed themselves, and were perhaps needing to be considered as being on the road to something MUCH more significant. One listen to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album hit “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” later and I knew I was onto something worth putting into words and entering into the universal pop musical conversation.
In doing something as sacrilegious as positing that Drew Taggart and Alex Pall are the 21st century comparative to Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, Mike Love, and Al Jardine (instead of say, Chester French with better dance moves or a MUCH less cooler Hall and Oates), there’s some important context that must be placed around the conversation.
In 1968, Rolling Stone co-founder Ralph Gleason referred to The Beach Boys as “a logical extension of Pat Boone and Ricky Nelson (as well as Paul Anka). They look like and perform like summer resort boozers, Fort Lauderdale weekend collegians. They sound like that, too.” In 2017, Philip Sherburne reviewed The Chainsmokers debut album Memories…Do Not Open and stated that it was “a lifeless, anodyne pop record that wallows in basic feelings of regret and narcissism.” Of course, it must also be noted that by 1968 the Beach Boys had released nine top ten albums and 12 top ten singles, and that by 2017, The Chainsmokers have released four top ten singles in five years, were the number one overall streamed EDM act on Spotify in 2016, and recently had their lyric video for Coldplay collaboration “Something Just Like This” streamed nine million times in one day. If anything, The Beach Boys and The Chainsmokers deserve to be inexorably linked as artists that prove that critics don’t know a fucking thing, and that pop music’s “basic” baseline for excellence can actually provide quite the amazing listen.
The wrong review of Memories…Do Not Open as being akin to a Beach Boys classic would be to call The Chainsmokers’ debut album their attempt at Pet Sounds. Yes, it’s a great album that succeeds at condensing all mainstream and underground musical styles of significant viral and traditional pop renown through a rhythm and blues prism, but it’s certainly not *that* tremendous.
Pet Sounds was greatly benefited by Brian Wilson removing himself from the Beach Boys as a touring group and emerging as a forward-thinking and studio-bound production superstar. Impressively his entertainingly common tastes in songwriting and impressive skill as a composer reduced The Beatles’ high minded craftsmanship on Rubber Soul smashes like “Norwegian Wood” into the musical equivalent of metaphorical McDonald’s cheeseburgers like the aforementioned “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Ultimately, the album cemented rock and roll’s turn away from disposable ditties into more fully realized artistic masterpieces.
For those who lost touch with electronic dance music somewhere after either the rise of Swedish House Mafia or Skrillex, there’s a lot happening these days in electronic music that The Chainsmokers have borrowed to this album’s great benefit, and to their own evolution as musical artists. However, it’s in Drew Taggart and Alex Pall maybe doubling down on more significantly unwrapping the robust musicality and soul inherent in the tinges of future bass, trap, tropical dance’s dembow riddim, soulful house, techno, and trance that inform these songs’ ear-worming potential where the powerful success of this duo on the Beach Boys’-esque level that their explorations deserve, can occur. If we’re comparing Brian Wilson to Drew and Alex, the pedestrian tastes are already there, but its in being MORE progressive minded in aggressively understanding their sonic inspirations where a deserved legacy of excellence truly begins.
Just as The Beach Boys made milquetoast records about surfing, girls, and school, The Chainsmokers excel at making stereotype-driven jams about partying, girls, and relationship angst. Similar to Brian Wilson enlisting Tony Asher, a commercial jingle-writing ad man who applied skills usually aligned with selling soda pop to writing pop music on Pet Sounds, the Chainsmokers’ murderers row of surefire top-40 heatseeekers from all genres here include rock icons Coldplay, country’s Florida-Georgia Line, and hip-hop’s Jhene Aiko.
However, musically, there’s impressively no way that the EDM digitization that provides “Wake Up Alone” with it’s horn-driven slo-mo trap swagger, and “Honest” with it’s breezy tropical similarity to Major Lazer’s “Lean On” can compare to the Wrecking Crew session musicians who dominate Pet Sounds. There’s something about what the Los Angeles Times refers to as “the gorgeous French horn melody that opens ‘God Only Knows,’ a thundering timpani rhythm that ignites ‘I’m Waiting for the Day,’ the sonorous bass harmonica that fills out ‘I Know There’s an Answer,’ the delicate flutes coloring ‘Sloop John B’ and the disarming string section interlude in the middle of ‘Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)’ that make that album everything that Memories…Do Not Open should be, but ultimately completely fails at rounding itself into.
However, even given this significant failing, The Chainsmokers are onto something potentially astounding. Moreover, and something that has earned them a level of extreme criticism is that they know how great they are and are unashamed to/allowed to bask in their own excellence. Their mainstream breakthrough was on 2013’s “#SELFIE,” an intentionally absurd, vapid, exploitative and yet still somehow so well-executed annoyance of a recording. In regards to its massive success, Taggart noted to Idolator that it was “a novelty record that was, in my opinion, one of the most clever records ever made…Obviously not everyone got the joke…but we’re working our way out of that and proving that we’re pretty well-rounded musicians.” This is arguably him not bragging one iota, but moreso stating an unequivocal 110% truism. As well, when the duo makes comments to Billboard like, “[our music is] like if LMFAO just started making the illest shit and stopped dressing like idiots,” and “I don’t know what to say to people who think it’s a con. We’re literally going for our third double-platinum record this year,” it’s the cherry on top of a pie that, if you are understandably annoyed by/jealous of the combination, you’d want to smash it right in their smug little faces.
Comparatively, imagine if Brian Wilson were asked the same number of questions about the success of the Beach Boys and Pet Sounds at the time of its release as The Chainsmokers have been asked about their consistent success, and responded with the answer of “no, everything’s great” that he responded to the Los Angeles Times’ query regarding the album in 2016. This answer in 1968 would’ve likely started what later became significant issues between how Wilson was regarded as a successful producer/musician and his negative relationship with the media.
Dismissing The Chainsmokers as also-ran trash compactors of 21st century digital pop is to undersell the tremendous potential apparent in the work they’re doing. In Memories…Do Not Open crystallizing the EDM era into multiple three-to-five minute digestible musical nuggets, they’ve actually stared deep and long into our streaming future and discovered its points of common denomination. It’s in raising that denominational bar from its lowest to highest standard wherein the mastery upon which they’ve initially just brilliantly scratched the surface will ultimately appear.
At various times, Pet Sounds has been described as “futuristic, progressive, and experimental,” and “commercial choir music that would stand up in ten years,” featuring “new sounds with a rich texture reminiscent of symphonic works layered underneath meticulous vocal harmonics.” In the minds of The Chainsmokers, it’s likely that evolving from “#SELFIE” to “Closer” to something like all of that certainly “would be nice.”