As a music critic still recovering from the snobbery of my teen years, I love to think about what makes a simple and popular song beautiful. Take “Yellow” by Coldplay, for example. It’s elementary in terms of technicality, yet strikingly beautiful and universally loved. There’s something about the concise nature of the song; how every element is honed in with expert precision on creating the perfect backdrop for a single moment of Chris Martin’s piercing falsetto. The individual parts combine invisibly in such a way that you can’t help but become lost in the moment. It is frictionless. It’s fitting, then, that I first discovered IAN SWEET through their stunning cover of “Yellow”, because SUCKER holds all these qualities, and is an equally effortless listen.
Good indie like this has such a great quality of finding your own painful memories as buried splinters, and gently teasing them free. To me, this album was about the equal parts frustration and wonder that we experience when we’re in love, and to make such an indescribable feeling observable is a special talent.
SUCKER wastes no time diving into exactly that, the slow starting “Bloody Knees” beginning to pick up pace when Medford sings, ‘You wanna talk about love?/Well what about when it hurts like hell?/Bloody knees when you tripped and fell/What about then?‘. These feelings, of half-asking for mercy as a new love drags you over concrete, are intensely relatable and “Bloody Knees” captures the beauty of the pain in these moments. The instrumentation is full and lush, without ever distracting from the sole purpose of the vocal performance, yet driving throughout. Synth, piano, and fuzz-laden guitars layer in an even wash that builds intensity throughout the track without ever becoming the slightest bit abrasive. IAN SWEET‘s production and equalization is exemplary.
The first single of the album, “Emergency Contact”, opens with a catchy and cute arpeggiated synth riff, the first mix-up in an album that is paced very thoughtfully for modern indie-pop. The track opens, ‘I stopped writing you down as my emergency contact/I bet you’re glad that you don’t have to come runnin’ every time I fall back’. Just brilliant. “Emergency Contact” was the first track I listened to of this album and I was gobsmacked by the depth packed into that opening line. This ballad-like track is sweet and simple, mostly focussing on the synth vamp from the intro and Medford’s whisperingly chanted, ‘I don’t mind, I don’t mind, I don’t want to get it right’. There are enough swells, cut-outs, and other dynamic features to keep the track from ever getting dull despite its repetition, and I once again have to give a nod to the production.
The back half of the album is all great, ballad-like in its lyricism and shoegazingly calm, yet my highlight of SUCKER is the more extreme dichotomy between the next two tracks, “Comeback” and “Your Spit”.
Starting with a reverb-laden breakbeat and equally resonant three-note riff, “Comeback” is a slow exhale. The whispered vocals fit perfectly with the spacious sound-space, creating a comforting yet haunting landscape for the opening riff to repeatedly revisit. This track is a beautiful exploration of some of the more unique features of Medford’s voice and creates a low point of intensity that helps with the overall pacing of the album. It’s a clever touch, then, that the following song is the most upbeat and rambunctious track of the album.
“Your Spit” is brimming with attitude and tongue-in-cheek playfulness, and it fits perfectly between two of the most low-energy songs on the album as a palette cleanser. Square wave synths and fuzzy, overdriven guitars kick in early and dance between the foreground where the vocals sit, and the background where the kick drum pounds drivingly. Medford breaks into the chorus repeat with a fiery squeal reminiscent of Yeah Yeah Yeahs‘ Karen O.
The variety in the vocal performance on this album is so impressive, and yet marked with restraint in how sparingly and deliberately certain techniques are used. “Your Spit” relieves not only the intensity, but also the tone overall, with the lyrics like, ‘Kiss me like you mean it/Make me believe it/Make me believe it‘ dropping the heat a little, without feeling disingenuous. Altogether, this set of songs feels like a reflection of the path of love itself in relationships. The aching, doubtful, vulnerable, and intimate moments in “Comeback” and “Clean” contrast with the sexual and playful brazen spirit of “Your Spit”.
SUCKER is an emotional ride, yet a smooth and repeatable one. This album is beautifully crafted both in writing and production, and IAN SWEET has expressed the torturous breadth of sensations that is love with maturity and poise.