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What to Expect
Almost immediately after Powfu’s 2019 Tik-Tok viral song Death Bed (Coffee for Your Head) catapulted beabadoobee (Bea Laus) to worldwide fame, everybody seemed to know what she was. “Bubblegum pop artist”, “TikTok musician”, “rising pop star”, “indie rocker”, and various other labels varying from the flattering to the neutral to the downright demeaning were thrown around with inexplicable definitiveness. ‘Beatopia’ will be beabadoobee’s second album, and despite having grown enormously both in artistry and in fame, having now supported such popular acts as The 1975 and Clairo, she is still contending with many over-simplified views of her music.
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‘Beatopia’, if nothing else, seems an attempt to transcend all this. Beabadoobee is indeed popular on TikTok, she is certainly indie too – both in style and by definition (releasing her music under the independent label Dirty Hit), her music is also often poppy. ‘Beatopia’, however, demonstrates how this can all coexist together along with other truths. Bea is heavily inspired by 90s alt-rock and grunge, she is witty and honest in her lyrics, she writes acoustic ballads, and when she plays live people mosh to I Wish I Was Stephen Malkmus. Inevitably, however, fans and critics alike tend to focus on one aspect of all this, instead of being willing to take her music as the complicated and multifaceted thing it is. ‘Beatopia’ seeks to be so many things that it defies such labels explicitly.
Over the course of the record’s fourteen songs, Laus traverses a hell of a lot of genres, teems with a million ideas, and can be heard in all sorts of ways. While it explores a range of genres, it’s ultimately a pop record. Though it could easily be described as a concept album, it’s also probably going to be popular on TikTok.
Given all that, it doesn’t make sense to review this release on a track-by-track basis or even in a structured account of its flaws and positives. Instead, I will seek to view the album in two different ways to attempt to get to the core of what this album is doing. With multi-dimensional records such as this, you can’t view them from just one angle – like a sculpture they require you to take a walk around before you form a judgment.
beabadoobee – As a Concept Album
On beabadoobee’s official website, the name of her latest album is defined, intriguingly, as ‘a fantastical yet deeply personal world that was formed in the imagination of a 7-year-old beabadoobee’. It makes sense, too. ‘Beatopia’ sounds like it was broadcast directly from someone’s innermost mind. It is this consistency of theme and artistic direction which makes this project a concept album. Each song aims to express and unpack a certain aspect of beabadoobee’s memories, and the music is more often than not constructed around supporting this goal. The occasional references to The Cure (Lovesong, Pictures of Us) and to Avril Lavigne (in Talk), for instance, firmly establish the nostalgic theme.
Take, for instance, broken cd, a soft and reflective number that uses the instrumentation carefully to approach this exploration of the theme of the album. “Don’t think I’m over it, it hurt when I was seventeen / Flew by so quickly I could hardly breathe / Don’t think I’m over it like I always said I was”, Bea sings. In broken cd, she is trying to work through a breakup she never really processed, learning that she has not recovered as fully as she thought she had. The music mirrors this, starting calmly with acoustic guitar and vocals and not much else, but complicating and escalating after the first chorus, finally returning to a state much like the beginning and yet different – more peaceful – now with what sounds like a harp. You get the sense of Bea trying to unearth something within herself, finding a memory and expanding on it, working through it, and then finding herself better off for it. The song is a perfect mix of nostalgia and hopefulness. Though this relationship from the past is missed, it’s best to move on. Even the title works in key with this; ‘cd’ reflecting nostalgia for the early 2000s, but ‘broken’ implying the nostalgia is somewhat misplaced.
See you Soon, one of the strongest tracks on the album, is similarly thoughtful in its construction and coherence to the concept of the record. At first, the bizarre synths, sounding like rocket ship noises, combined with slightly heavier guitar than some of the rest of the record may seem like they’ve come a little out of nowhere. When you learn that this song is apparently written about a mushroom trip it all makes sense though. Although delving into a psychedelic sound she hasn’t much explored in the past (though the song bears some resemblance to Space Cadet), Bea achieves the aesthetic very effectively, applying vocal effects which layer wonderfully with more natural vocals underneath, creating a patchwork of sound which gives the song real depth. Meanwhile, the electric guitar which leads the track has a fantastically far-away sound that somehow manages to feel both hard-edged and lo-fi. Combined with a drum line with such a baggy casualness to it that it feels like the set is just jangling around in the back of a truck, keeping to time merely by chance, the hazy intensity of a trip is encapsulated in music.
This ability of psychedelia and musical experimentation in general to capture a childish dreamscape is something Laus really runs with on ‘Beatopia’, gleefully taking influences from all over to achieve this effect. ‘Beatopia Cultsong’, the opening track, sets the tone for the album with how much it has going on. Beginning with slow guitar, overheard conversations, synthy whisperings, and the sound of jangling, you really have no idea how the song, let alone the album is going to pan out. Shortly, it all goes quiet until Bea begins singing over a riff that recalls Beck’s Loser. Like an incantation, we hear, repeated, “is it me, or recently, time is moving slowly”. It becomes clear we’re being transported back in time, mentally, to Beatopia, where Bea will explore her past.
The song is a strange jumble of peace, chaos, dream, and reality. The overall crescendo effect of the song really feels like the sunrise of something beautiful – it’s a very hopeful track that professes enormous confidence to experiment. Laus told NME that if after hearing the album listeners “came out of it feeling like they were in some sort of lucid dream, then I did my job”. From the start, such an effect is established. The heady mix of genres makes everything feel like the strangely intelligible nonsense of a dream – revealing aspects of yourself that you weren’t aware of and bringing ideas and memories together previously unrelated. Beabadoobee is happy to mix 90s alternative rock with elements of dream pop and psychedelia, as in ‘Beatopia Cultsong’, and is equally willing to screw it all and return to acoustic balladry in You’re here that’s the thing when we finally wake up from the dream.
This eclectic mix of genres that pervades the project is not only really fun to listen to, but it’s also an effective way of portraying the disjointedness of childhood memories. Two other tracks which bring something unique to the record are the perfect pair and tinkerbell is overrated. The former of these employs gracefully ascending and descending bossa nova guitar, the staccato of which contrasts fantastically against Bea’s soft vocals. Tinkerbell, featuring PinkPantheress, through a combination of pitched-up glitchy vocals, a messy and high-paced drum machine all backed by electronic music, manages to combine beabadoobee’s indie sound with hyperpop in a way that works.
As a Pop Record
If we look past the overall coherence of the record and purely at some kind of approximation of the ‘median’ genre of the LP, it’s undeniably pop. In this sense, it’s not hard to say ‘Beatopia’ is a pop record. Looking at it through this lens, we can judge the album for its success in new ways and approach features of the album differently. The references to The Cure on ‘Beatopia’, for instance, seem now to suggest not nostalgia, but a similarity of sound with the band. Indeed, the bubbly sickly sweet marriage of guitar and synths seen on the more popular of the Cure’s tracks, combined with self-reflective lyrics seem to confirm this idea. beabadoobee incorporates some of this into ‘Beatopia’ and its predominantly pop-oriented style. This is another thing the project does well: by smuggling in non-pop features to pop songs it does what truly great pop records do, and helps to add to the vocabulary of popular music.
Take 10:36, an undeniably very poppy cut with a typically repetitious vocal melody and a bubblegum sweetness to the instrumentals. Nevertheless, it would be hard to say the electronic intensity and glitchiness of the guitar used is at all ‘mainstream’ pop, if even pop at all. Even Laus’ most poppy tracks fail to completely fit the mold completely, preferring instead to extend the reaches of the mold ever so slightly in pursuit of something original.
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Sunny day is a subtler example of where an ostensibly pop track hides something unique beneath its highly structured and approachable surface. In this case, it’s the complexity of harmonies that is excellently concealed by the relative lack of diversity in instruments. It would be easy not to notice that there’s more than one guitar playing, but they’re interacting and weaving between each other for most of the song. Perhaps more impressive, though, is Bea’s vocal melody, which jars ever so slightly with the guitar in a really captivating way. Sunny Day is an excellent example of how the simplicity of a lot of ‘Beatopia’ doesn’t sacrifice quality or even, really, simplicity. A lot of the time the sensation of simplicity is actually one that’s carefully created in spite of the actual complexity at play.
In another of the most pop-centric songs on the album, Ripples, acoustic guitar takes centre stage. Still, even with the rather basic format of acoustic guitar and soulful singing, one that Bea has stuck to a lot in the past, she’s no longer satisfied with playing by the book. From the start, soaring strings pierce through the casual, restrained acoustic guitar which would otherwise stroll unhindered into the milquetoast territory. Instead, the emotion and richness of the vocal melody and the thoughtful restraint of the acoustic guitar are accentuated. Pop done well – pop done thoughtfully – done differently, is enjoyable for anyone. I normally enjoy Bea’s more rock-influenced stuff, but this, for me, is one of the most enjoyable moments on ‘Beatopia’. It’s a pop song but it refuses to be just a pop song.
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Many publications have referred to this latest effort as a sign of things to come: a record brimming with hope and potential for the future. This is certainly true, but although I’d agree, I’d also say that with ‘Beatopia’, beabadoobee has very much arrived. This is the potential of her earlier stuff fully realized – it’s a fantastic pop record, any way you look at it.
Naturally, there is room for improvement here and there. It by no means represents the height of her lyricism, for example. Moreover, despite being very confident in experimenting with genre, there are a few times where this boldness lapsed. Lovesong, for example, felt harmonically simple. Near the end, some brilliant piano came in, sounding almost synthetic in all its twinkling, but it never really became loud enough or prominent enough to contribute to the harmony. I found myself subconsciously whistling along my own harmony to fill the gap.
Ultimately, however, this is a bold record, especially when compared to the fun and moody but relatively unadventurous ‘Fake it Flowers’, her previous release. ‘Beatopia’, in contrast, sounds like the music of the moment. It’s dreamy, ethereal, dynamic, whimsical, exploratory, full of self-doubt, and yet confident and honest about that insecurity. Taking the sound associated with Clairo, Soccer Mommy, and Japanese Breakfast and adding something to it. It’s TikTok ready (Pictures of Us sounds very much like We’ll Never Have Sex by TikTok-originating musician Leith Ross), but then again some of it is very much not. ‘Beatopia’ fits the pop mold, but not at all comfortably – it’s not hard to sense the pop genre’s hold on beabadoobee might not last.
The Whole Picture
‘Fake it Flowers’ was a modern take on ‘90s alt-rock, and inevitably ‘Beatopia’ draws on this – naturally, it also pulls from ‘Patched Up’, ‘Space Cadet’, and the rest of Bea’s catalogue, but after this, it goes further back. It’s a return to childhood and the power of taking a new look at old memories and finding something new. On this record, Laus takes a look at her long-held influences and finds a novel and unique way to combine them all into one coherent whole. Managing in an instant to be old, borrowed, fresh, poppy, and subversive, this project reflects the complicated nature of childhood and the memories we have of it.
It’s a many-sided thing, but all the pieces fit together. Most importantly, it defies classification in a way that boldly takes a swipe, even if a gentle one, at the limits of genre. In a time when the very word ‘pop’ has never meant less and never captured more, ‘Beatopia’ widens the net further, and I’m all for it.
By Samuel Sandor
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Outside of his ongoing MA degree in English and Philosophy at St Andrews, Samuel Sandor spends his spare hours writing – short stories, essays, articles on film, music, or any other subject he finds himself preoccupied by. Through all these strands, he strives to find a unique and unexpected way to look at the subject at hand. Without a concerted effort, it’s easy to form surface-level impressions of both the art and the news that one consumes. Sam’s pieces attempt to answer this interpretative simplicity by inducing curiosity in subjects one might ordinarily devote little thought to. It is this desire to transform viewpoints with novel ideas and to stoke deeper and more extensive conversations which attracted him to The Hollywood Insider.