One of the strangest parts of Bo Burnham for me is that, in some respects, we grew up together - not side-by-side physically of course, but certainly in a parallel state. This really landed for me during this special with the song 30, the reality setting in that I'm only a few paces behind Burnham in age. A great deal of this special and album examines the internet culture of today, and the introspection that Burnham has, based on his life, comes from seeing and experiencing the same world I have seen. The only real, and obvious, difference is that Burnham was a part of that exact culture for me.
See, Burnham came up as one of the earliest YouTube performers back in 2006 right when the phenomenon of video sharing became one of the biggest things happening in the world, and as a newly minted teen I was already engrossed into a new world that we were all learning about simultaneously. I remember clearly Burnham gaining notoriety, engaging in heady comedy, and releasing more mainstream specials in 2010 and 2013, not just passively but as a big fan of his early work from a young age. It doesn't click how close in age you are to people until much later, because I never really considered that Burnham was only a couple years older than me and was already on a massive stage.
I think a lot of that past history is what makes Inside such a big deal to me, both as a special and through its music. Early in the special I gathered that it was far more different than his usual work, a necessity without a crowd in front of him to laugh and react to his punchlines, but by the middle point it was really beginning to sink in just how artistic this special is. The evolution of Burnham through the pandemic becomes a much darker narrative over time as he becomes more raggedy, tired, and evidently depressed, and the deeper he falls into this state the more challenging the special becomes. It's the smartest thing the comedian has ever done to be sure, and that's saying a lot for one of the smartest guys in the room always.
But the crucial point here is that Burnham is, and always has been, a phenomenal musician. Sure, he was always funny and that's what people think of him as, but he started at the beginning as a singer and performer on YouTube. Unlike most comedy musicians, the purpose of Burnham's music is the actual music and the joke is always secondary. This is critical to the success of Inside - typically comedy music becomes dated, boring, and unfunny almost immediately and always makes its expiration date much closer than any other form of music. Inside, in contrast, is riddled in catchy and well structured songs that are easy to repeat without having to think all that much about the joke.
Starting from the top is Content, which really clearly introduces one of the most prominent features of Inside - a shit ton of synth. This is what the songs FaceTime with my Mom, Sexting, 30, and even All Eyes On Me are centered on, and each are some of the most accessible on the album as not just jokes but straight up solid tracks. Comedy, the second track, then introduces the other key feature in traditional piano work interlaced with more electronic elements - portions of this come back on How the World Works, White Woman's Instagram, Welcome to the Internet, and Goodbye, that last one being easily one of the most impactful songs from an emotional standpoint on the whole special. Those two forms of solo key playing are what help Inside become far from a one-note project, delivering some humorous and infectious tracks from various different perspectives.
There are also several moments of variety outside of this, but they are often so quick that they blaze right on through. Unpaid Intern is swingy in less than a minute and Shit is clubby and funky but immediately deplorable, but the most time spent on a dramatic shift is That Funny Feeling. Late as a portion of the special, there's virtually no effort to be humorous here and instead is just genuine emotion and witty songwriting. It's one of the best moments on the album, not just because it's a stellar track but also because it shows just how far Burnham is from a one-dimensional performer.
Finally, the actual content of Burnham's jokes are poignant rather than petty, making them easier to enjoy on a deeper level. Some of the really slick pop songs, like FaceTime, Sexting, and White Woman's Instagram, are all very thoughtful examinations of how the internet plays a role in communication, particularly during the pandemic, without being so upfront that they're trying to be funny that they become stale. How the World Works isn't one of the most repeatable songs, but the ridiculous amount of attention and thought that goes into the lyrics make it a pleasure throughout. Even the tongue in cheek celebrations of Jeff Bezos are very clearly coming from a place of reflection and not just being quick and kitschy. By actually thinking about his jokes, as he often does, Burnham makes genuinely biting music that isn't for easy laughs and actually engages the listener.
There are few people who could truly understand the lead-up to our internet life today, discuss it creatively, and make it into special songs better than Bo Burnham. His whole life has been revolved around the digital world, not just passively but actively in his career, and so he offers genuine experience with the source material of our cataclysmic year. There is also probably no voice I would have been happier to return to perform such a sincere, artistic, and moving piece of work than Burnham. The special is almost guaranteed to win some awards, and if it doesn't someone truly got something wrong. The songs stand up alone as a project as well, so listening to these as just songs is still a heavily enjoyable experience. For every critic who feels it necessary to talk about an artists "Covid album" stop now, look at this, and think again about placing it on every album possible. Making an album during a pandemic is certainly an experience in its own right, but exposing yourself at this level during those crippling months feels much deeper, making Inside surely one of the most memorable albums and specials of the entire year.
Favorite song: Goodbye