Lonely Generation is usually more solid than surprising. But one moment comes out of nowhere.
When we say pop artists “mature” or “grow up,” what we’re usually saying is that they’re embracing subjects that are more serious, more sexual, more complicated than puppy love. What’s less common is for an artist to mature by learning from their mistakes, by taking out what didn’t work from their earlier music and replacing it with stronger material, by embracing excellence rather than just chasing what’s trendy. That’s what Echosmith’s done on their second album, Lonely Generation.
The growth this band of Chino, CA siblings has shown over the last decade is staggering. Their 2013 debut Talking Dreams felt like a series of attempts at finding a commercially viable sound. They eventually hit paydirt with the urbane, vaguely disco indie-pop of “Cool Kids,” which was—to put it lightly—not a great song. But the siblings have honed the specific sound of that single down to a T while writing increasingly strong lyrics and assembling increasingly consistent albums. 2017’s Inside a Dream EP, named for an album presumably swallowed up by label woes, was about a hundred times better than Talking Dreams. The self-released Lonely Generation is about a hundred times better than that one was.
The title track isn’t promising. “Lonely Generation” is another one of those songs about how we’re always looking at our phones and not talking to each other. But the beat is so solid it almost redeems it, the use of “we” implicates the singer, and the remaining 12 songs on the record range from strong to superb. Surprisingly sharp images pop out (“like shadows, I’ll never leave your side,”) and on two tracks singer Sydney Quiseng employs one of the most underrated pop tricks: turning her personal narrative onto the faceless mass of listeners. “Diamonds” seems like a pretty generic song about a girl who doesn’t know she’s a flame, but then Quiseng gives us this: “When are we gonna learn that we can change the world?” Not an impressive lyric on its own, but the shift in perspective blows the scope of the song wide open.
She does this again on “Lost Somebody.” “Have you ever used somebody?” she sings. “That’s how you lose somebody.” She’s talking to the listener, and then suddenly she’s not, shifting to second person to tear into her ex. It’s a hook that’s also a moral. It almost seems inconceivable that something like that can exist in the same pop world that elevates narcotized deadbeats like the Weeknd. Echosmith wrote “Cool Kids” from the perspective of someone still caught up in the high school-college sphere of petty social politics, but Lonely Generation is unmistakably written from the perspective of an adult. This is interesting given how much its title baits millennial sensibilities. Is this the first pop album specifically about being an adult born in the late-nineties? Time sure flies.
The production is consistently “‘80s,” but not in an affected or ironic way. They just understand that warm disco guitars and dance beats can yield some of the most welcoming, “classic”-sounding pop. There’s a lifeline between this music, Dev Hynes’s productions for Solange and Sky Ferreira, Taylor Swift’s 1989, and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. The one stylistic experiment, “Scared to Be Alone,” actually feels like a reggae song rather than one of those vaguely “tropical” aberrations that dot so many try-hard pop albums. When they want to switch up the pace, they’ll drop a ballad; “Everyone Cries” and “Follow You” are placed at just the right moments in the track list.
Lonely Generation is usually more solid than surprising. But one moment comes out of nowhere. After we think “I Don’t Wanna Lose My Love” has petered out, it springs back to life with a sad Mellotron loop and a steely clatter of drums. Quiseng gasps distantly in the mix, turning herself into a sample. It’s one of the most gorgeous things I’ve heard on a pop album since the harmonies on Rihanna’s “Work.” Interludes and part-twos are so common on blockbuster releases we don’t even think twice about them most of the time, but what makes this one stand out is that, even on top of everything about Echosmith this album confirms, we weren’t expecting them to go there. Here’s this no-bullshit pop album, and then here’s this other universe.