With the release of their fifth album “Keep On Smiling” — released Sept. 9 — the Northern Irish band Two Door Cinema Club deviates from their more well-known alternative rock style. The trio composed of members Alex Trimble, Sam Halliday and Kevin Baird delves into dance punk territory, highlighted by consistent techno-funk backtracks.
While this new experimental sense of direction driven by electronic beats, 80s pop influences and encouraging lyrics was exciting to unwrap, the repetitive narrative of carefree joy, ultimately, could not be carried over into all twelve tracks. As a result, the album feels shallow and empty by its conclusion, its overly experimental clashing instruments and vague lyrics leaving it with a lack of emotional clarity and depth.
“Keep On Smiling” is almost bookended by instrumentals with the first and penultimate tracks, titled “Messenger AD” and “Messenger HD.” The former begins the album with an ominous spiral through drones and dark synths worthy of the “Stranger Things” score — a rather deceptive introduction to an album that is largely bright and vibrant.
The electronic sound is reminiscent of bands such as ODESZA, its futuristic and slightly eerie tone made clear with the synth and rhythm intensity fading in and out frequently. This musical style is maintained throughout the whole album –– many songs feature an 80s-style funk-synth production.
While the album is unimaginative at times, the extensive use of synthesizers allow for the artists to experiment vastly with both instrumentals and vocals. This creates a new sound distinctly different from their previous albums that sometimes proves successful. The incorporation of an introspective and almost soothing voice similar to Alan Watts throughout the sixth track “Millionaire” is relatively inspiring and balances well with the other psychedelic layers of the song. The techno-funk instrumentals in ninth track “Feeling Strange” are also complementary to the track’s title, intentionally and effectively evoking strange, drug-induced feelings.
These electronic blends can also be jarring when mixed in certain combinations, however. The nearly robotic vocals featured in the background of third track “Everybody’s Cool” — which inconsequentially echo the song’s title repeatedly — feel unnecessarily excessive.
The introduction of autotuned vocals alongside a wall of syncopated electro noise in tenth track “Won’t Do Nothing” is equally abnormal and offbeat in sound. It’s disappointing in comparison to the appeal the song’s retro instrumental backtrack provides.
The closest the album gets to incorporating other styles outside of dance punk is in “High” — a blown out, weird mix of sultry-slow jam and a rock ballad. Set to a much slower tempo with quieter instrumentals and more intimate vocals from Trimble, the seventh track attempts to instrumentally and lyrically cement itself in themes of passing time as well as resilience. However, with lines such as “And you get older / But it’s only for a short time,” and “Sorry not sorry / Apology, apology,” the song is overly abstract and has no discernible direction.
The album reaches an apparent finish line with its final two tracks “Messenger HD” and “Disappearer”. “Messenger HD” is breezier and less tightly wound than its introductory counterpart “Messenger AD” — perhaps a direct result of the fun that happens in between.
The minute-and-a-half song also brings in a string instrument for the first time in the album, an incorporation that feels out of place but nevertheless presents a euphoric feeling. Had “Messenger HD” been the last song on the album, its dreamlike ambience would have provided closure and a full-circle ending to the record.
The fully instrumental song is succeeded by last track “Disappearer,” a song that not only spoils the tracklist’s symmetry but prods along an optimistic and cheerful musical vibe already oversaturated by the previous songs on the album, adding little to the record as a whole. What feels like a random last-track insertion, “Disappearer” offers nothing new. It reverts to the album’s steady drum beat with Trimble’s vocals once again autotuned and ultimately leaves listeners with no concise final message.
Most tracks feel tailored to driving with the windows down on a hot summer day. This particular feeling is conveyed most successfully and effortlessly in the album’s promotional singles, “Lucky” and “Wonderful Life,” which are positioned as the fourth and eighth tracks. Both songs lyrically center on shifting mentalities and looking toward the more positive aspects that life has to offer. Alongside a melodic electric guitar sequence, “Lucky” features a particularly memorable chorus with easygoing, harmonious lyrics, proclaiming “We're running out of luck / I can feel the change / Holding onto little pieces of what remains.”
Wholistically, Two Door Cinema Club’s latest album is undoubtedly uplifting — both lyrically and instrumentally. While the joyful tone running throughout the album certainly evokes positive emotions, the feeling is dragged out and often feels like an easy escape from delving beyond superficial lyrics of cliche euphemisms. Its message outside of accepting others and holding out hope for the future is unclear.
This lack of clarity stems from the lyrics being all over the place with meaningful phrases randomly dispersed, failing to take a firm stance on any matter. Additionally, the order in which the tracks are placed in relation to one another seems purposeless, providing no clear arc or narrative throughout the album. Simultaneously, the upbeat tempo featured in all but two of the album’s tracks — “High” and “Messenger HD” — makes them hard to differentiate from one another. With “Keep On Smiling” coming short of emotional depth and a thematic message, the album provides audiences with an electric adrenaline rush but leaves them unsure of what to do when the smile fades.