Yep. A serious contender for my Album of The Year is a comedy album.
After quickly gaining fame from viral YouTube videos of his musical and then having a successful career as a standup comedian, integrating his music and visual components into his set, Bo Burnham retired from stand up comedy in 2016 after his internal struggle with art, comedy, performance, capitalism, depression, and existentialism lead to him having panic attacks on stage. After spending time to focus on his mental health, Bo was ready to reenter the world of standup comedy, only for the world to shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic nearly immediately after returning to his work. Burnham made the decision to write, record, and edit a musical comedy special for Netflix, and one would expect that with his online origins and his developed skills in audio and visuals, he would be more prepared than anyone for a year inside. Unfortunately, Bo’s 2020-2021 was just as hard as the average person, which Bo not only documented in his comedy special “Inside”, but he also integrated into his musical craft.
While I would say the context of the actual special would strengthen your experience listening to the album, you don’t have to be familiar with the special to be able to enjoy, laugh, and cry to “Inside (The Songs)”. Some of Bo’s older albums and songs either rely on the visual medium or the context in between each bit, and some of the studio versions of his songs aren’t as enjoyable as their live counterparts, but Burnham’s writing has become so strong that you can still pick up on the humorous punchlines or the cutting truths that he is trying to portray and you can enjoy this album without even having to see the special. On top of that, Burnham’s production has greatly improved since his 2016 special to the point that you wouldn’t think he spent five years off. His beats feel a lot more professional than they have in the past, focusing heavily on electronic music that sounds futuristic, while also incorporating musical theater, acoustic singer-songwriter, 80’s synthpop, and much more. Many of these songs are actually so well produced and so catchy that you could listen to them without the context of making you laugh; you can listen to it just because it’s a well written song. Some songs I can imagine being played on the radio or in an album context right now, and what I especially like is that many songs build off themes and musical ideas off each other, making it feel more like an album experience.
Bo’s humor is as sharp as ever, filling the record with his cleverness and absurdity and switching between the two within seconds. While many comedians, especial the musical kind, struggle with having punchlines that you can easily predict (I love The Lonely Island but they’re definitely guilty of this), Bo’s lyrics never fail to catch me by surprise and have me cracking up, either from a unique observation or just from saying something ridiculous. Burnham is able to integrate commentary and his thoughts on modern living seamlessly into on-the-surface silly songs, like how he is able to make a Sesame Street sounding tune be about history revisionism of the systems of oppression that made the world what it is today, or how songs like “30” are about his existential realization that he is still stuck in the same place he has been in since his youtube days, feeling like he barely moved forward in life. But at the same time, there are many songs in “Inside (The Songs)” where the humor feels understated, where the jokes won’t necessarily make you laugh or you might not find the humor in them at all. That’s not to say Bo is failing at comedy in any way, his cleverness is still there, but sometimes the truth behind the humor is so devastating that it feels more like a gut punch. Sometimes “comedy” isn’t funny at all.
While Bo’s material has always had a focus on tackling art, performance, the internet, comedy, capitalism, existentialism, and Bo’s place within it all, “Inside” is the first time those more subtle looks leap right onto the page, sometimes with dead seriousness. Like for many of us at the beginning of the pandemic, the special and the music within it starts fairly silly and mostly joking with only hints to the real struggles we’re facing. But as time went on, the memes we made and the cynical jokes we’d say about our situation showed more of a desperation, until the point where many of us had to face the fact about how depressed we were feeling, and “Inside” reflects that. Bo may start joking about how his mom doesn’t grasp facetime or the performativity of social media, but it doesn’t take long for him to reflect on the issues we constantly talk about today. He thinks about the systems of oppression that continue to this day, how he has been insensitive to others with his comedy, how he’s getting older but feels like he hasn’t caught up with others or is fulfilled, how the infinite amount information on the internet - real, fake, and/or dangerous - is hurting everyone, how it constantly feels like irreparable damage and destruction is happening to the earth and it feels like the end is near, how his depression is consuming him, how a straight white male like him might not have a place in comedy when everyone is suffering. Bo left the stage when he felt performance and the commodity of art was getting in the way of his mental health and his humor wasn’t contributing to a world that was hurting. Burnham tried to reenter the world when he thought he had gotten better only to realize the world was worse than when he left it, the problems he had with the constant need to perform still existed, and found even less good reason for his work to exist in a world that felt like it was ending.
Bo Burnham might struggle to find value in his work, but I commend his vulnerability that he is constantly willing to display but identify with his worries and fears about the mad world around him. As someone whose declining mental health seems to have caught up to me in recent months, I can identify with Burnham’s struggles to create, his anxieties of the world around him, and his honest struggles with depression that interferes with his work despite supposedly doing what he loves. There've been a lot of “quarantine” projects, many of which I praised, but “Inside” and its accompanying album feels like the only work to have truly captured what it was like during the entirety of 2020-2021 where every day felt madder than the last. Great songs, funny laughs, hard truths, a relatable and existential look at the internet, mental health, isolation, and modern life - Bo Burnham’s “Inside” is truly something special.