Sharp, catchy angst in less than three minutes.
Anyone who’s watched the career of Portland’s Mo Troper—formerly of the fantastic Your Rival and TeenSpot, now solo—knows that he’s freakishly talented. Charming, funny and wildly self-deprecating, Troper is an ardent purveyor of catchy-as-hell power-pop, carrying the lessons learned from bands like Weezer and Guided by Voices and creating short, charming songs about heartache and how godawful being an adult can be. If you’ve been paying attention since Your Rival’s breakup-with-a-hairdresser anthem “Sydney”—or let Troper’s first two solo albums Exposure and Response and Beloved corkscrew their way into their hearts and skulls—you know what to expect from his newest, Natural Beauty: sharp, catchy angst in less than three minutes.
A few years back, Troper left Portland to spend some time attempting to live in Los Angeles and New York, but much like the island from the show “Lost,” Portland has a way of drawing you back in. The Portland that Troper returned to was different from the one he left, and that feeling of nothing ever being quite how you left it seems to indirectly permeate most every song on Natural Beauty. One really takes the cake, though: nestled in the record’s home stretch, “Lucky Devils” does nothing to mask Troper’s feelings. “I moved back home after being away for a year or so/ Maybe I should have stayed/ It doesn’t feel like home/ Nothing’s in the same place/ They’re calling it growth/ It’s more like decay.” He walks a fine line here; he manages to capture the grief that sprang from an unrecognizably changed Winnipeg that John K. Samson nailed on the Weakerthans’ “One Great City!” while still being as cutting as Death Cab for Cutie’s bileful “Why You’d Want to Live Here.” Sure, there’s no “But the Greyhounds keep coming/ Dumping locusts into the streets” here, but with lines like “You’ll never find another city with so much natural beauty/ And so we kicked all the poor people out/ Now there’s more for you and more for me,” it’s hard to complain.
This particular balance is exactly what makes Troper such a remarkable musician and songwriter. His lyrics fall into place with shocking ease, wrapped in enough power-pop goodness to make Carl Newman blush. As has been true since Here’s to Me (Your Rival’s sole full-length), though, is that he’s hyper-skilled at capturing the ways that adult angst can mirror what we experience as teenagers. “In Love with Everyone” documents the damage done by being permanently lovelorn, while “Business as Usual” serves to examine the Acceptance stage of being a washed-up has-been: “Big news only lasts a minute/ It’s the fate of every front page/ To end up at the bottom of some bird cage.” On opener “I Eat,” he similarly dissects his own emptiness and makes poignant the simple act of boredom eating.
These topics could be harsh, but this is where Troper’s ear for pop music comes in. You can sing dramatically about being separated from young love by oceans and continents, but on “Jas from Australia,” he somehow anthemizes that feeling (while tossing in lines like “I said I was moving to Melbourne/ I lied and now you know” like it’s nothing). And try getting past a couple listens of the dreamily produced “Your Boy” without your body commanding that you sing along. He essentially never lets up on that energy, save for the a cappella “Everything.” Just once, though, he strips back everything around him, on the scathing, largely acoustic closer “Cameo,” the album’s longest song. Arguably the best of them, he dives into the nature of becoming irrelevant by your own hand: “You parlayed your little problems/ Into a thrilling narrative/ And an unpaid internship/ And now you have no bridges left/ You burned right through your safety net.” After 26 minutes of bubblegum hits, the sparse “Cameo” manages to surprise by giving you essentially nothing to cushion the blows.
The only real downfall of Natural Beauty is its length. Though “Business as Usual” and “Cameo” each pass five minutes, the remaining songs clock in at well under three, leaving you desperately wanting more. One of power-pop’s strongest pillars is keeping things tight, and while Troper’s level of economic song creation is commendable, it’s hard to not wish most every song got just one more killer chorus. This is par for the course for a songwriter who once admitted, “I get pretty bored with myself after three minutes,” though—we should consider ourselves lucky that we get songs this great, no matter how short they are.