Quinn XCII (“ninety-two”) has long been known for his particular style of bedroom pop. As his career has progressed, he has gradually moved from a more low-budget sound toward a close emulation of industry pop production.
His most recent release, “The People’s Champ,” represents another step on that journey, with the Michigan-based artist producing what sounds like a top-of-the-line pop record. Despite its professional sound, the album finds itself stagnant at many points and its emotional climaxes fail to make an impact in most cases.
It opens on “Bartender,” which presents some promising elements, but starts the album off on a mediocre note. It features some compelling horn lines and a robust drum beat at the beginning but the main texture is promptly replaced with an acoustic guitar four-chord loop that becomes stale around the halfway point.
When a song feels stationary like this, it’s not always easy to tell what needs variation, but on “Bartender,” I think it’s undoubtedly the harmony and rhythm of the accompaniment. The guitar strumming and bassline are interesting the first few times, but without any harmonic or rhythmic variation they begin to smear together, losing a sense of groove and becoming expected.
Unfortunately, similar problems plague many of the songs on this album and the backing instrumentals often sound as though they were created without much consideration for the dynamic arc of the tune. The ways in which they vary within a track are disappointingly superficial, pretty much only adding and removing voices at times, rarely providing interesting landmarks for the listener to latch onto.
One of the more interesting textures comes on “FOMO (Don’t Do Cool Shit),” which does make a halfhearted attempt at mixing up the structure, introducing a bridge of sorts near the song’s middle. I would also consider this to be the most interesting harmony of the album, as well as having the most rhythmic variation in the beat.
Still, there’s something missing. There’s some element here that makes these songs sound flat or even inhuman. It’s nigh impossible to pinpoint and put accurately into words, but these tunes lack a certain amount of soul that leaves them below the bar.
Never is this dearth more apparent than on “Too Late (with AJR).” AJR is perhaps today’s figurehead of this particular genre of soulless pop, and the fact that they sound so at home on this track is quite telling.
To its credit, “Too Late” sounds as though it’s trying to make some sort of point; the lyrics seem to describe a high-stakes relationship situation and the instrumentals hint at emotional content, but it doesn’t come together to have any sort of impact. It’s trying to be simultaneously a party banger and a moving ballad, and it fails to take the mantle of either.
The album’s closer, “All That You Need,” is guilty of the same crime, although it does so more gracefully. It begins soft and slow, with just piano and vocal, then drops into a busier groove around the halfway mark.
The song is clearly meant to be heartfelt, and it accomplishes that tone at the beginning rather well, which makes the beat switch all the more deflating. Quinn XCII wants to have his cake and eat it too; he refuses to write a song that is earnest without being danceable, and in cases like these, it’s to his detriment.
If it wasn’t clear to this point, this album is not for me. I think the composition, arrangement and performance lack heart and the music often feels flat and lifeless. However, for someone that likes this type of music, “The People’s Champ” will probably be enjoyable.
It’s produced cleanly and with detail, and to his credit, Quinn’s vocal performances are solid. It’s just missing a certain something that will keep it off of my playlist.