Introverted Trauma Pop? Don’t mind if I do!
Look, I’m gonna be real, I was kind of dreading reviewing this record, but not in the way you’d think. There weren't any negative expectations I had for Ken M’s follow up to Climb leading up to its release. There was no fear the album would suck, nor that it wouldn’t be for me. In fact, I was really looking forward to it! Starting the year off with some emotive songwriting about death, suicide and the effects trauma has on people? Sounds like the way I want to start my year!
No, the reason why I was dreading this record was because...well, in my head, there was such a weird expectation for ME personally to love this album. As some of you may have read, Ken M’s last record ‘Climb’ took me down such a personal journey that it actually helped me come to terms with my own trauma that I had lugging around. It was an album that really helped me come to terms with a shitty thing in my life, so yeah, I was kind of nervous that this self titled record wouldn’t live up to the expectations I had going into this record. ‘Actually Helping Me Process Trauma’ is a hard act to follow, and I really did want to give this record a fair shake to see what Ken M could do on what he would consider a better project.
So...after listening to this record multiple times, did I like this album more than Climb?
…No, but that being said, this thing is super duper worth your time!
One of the most obvious step-ups from Climb is Ken's clear improvement in songwriting from a compositional standpoint. This album being much more versatile and broad of a listen then Climb was, with influences being flinged around all over the place during this LPs lean 38 minute runtime. There was never a second where I was bored listening to this album, and in some cases I was thrilled listening to where this album would go next. Some tracks are the more in line with the traditional synth-pop stylings that were found on Climb, like the peppy yet cold track ‘Alone’, the empty yet emotionally charged and cathartic closer ‘The Human’ (which could easily fit onto Climb), the melancholic sing-a-long ballad of ‘The Inferior’ or the catchy yet depressive ‘Low Expectations’, while other tracks on this record venture into new sonical territories for Ken M, like the electronic trap-pop ‘The Alien’ or the dark experimental banger ‘Fantasize’.
Strangely enough, one of the biggest changes from Climb to this album is the borrowing influence from experimental hip-hop acts like Brockhampton and Kanye West. Hell, I'd go as far as saying that the tracks ‘The Monster‘, ‘The Persona‘ and ‘Fantasize’ sound like they could belong on an alternate universe version of Yeezus. I’m not joking, there are moments where the bass is so distorted, the percussion so tribal and the vocals so aggressive that it caught me off guard the first time I listened to this and sent me into a loop of ‘what the fuckery’ as I was hearing Ken M scream his lungs out on end outro of ‘The Persona’.
And while the compositions have gotten more diverse and experimental, the emotional hit from the last record is still very much intact here. Themes of anxiety, suicide and depression still run extremely deep through this record, even to a shockingly confrontational and brutally honest degree. It is a record that, instead of wallowing in the loneliness and depression that was Climb, tries to lift itself up from the harshness of reality and truly tries to accept trauma instead of just letting it fester. From the themes of battling introversion on ‘The Basement Dweller’, to the feelings of hollowness on ‘The Robot’, this record takes the emotive lyricism from Climb and takes it into a new, much healthier direction, making more of a certified artistic statement rather than a collection of ‘I’m Extremely Sad!’ tracks.
Instead of staring down the barrel of the gun waiting for death, this album tries instead to figure out why the gun is even there in the first place, making for a damn more compelling record lyrically (which is saying a hell of a lot). Hell, the excellent three track run of ‘The Persona’, ‘The Monster’ and ‘The Human’ feels like I’m walking in on a full-on meltdown, with ‘The Persona’ showing Ken screaming their brains out and demanding retribution for past mistakes, making for an extremely gripping and honestly shocking display of emotional catharsis on the album. That catharsis continues on ‘The Monster’, with Ken feeling genuinely scared of the mental state they are in, which feels almost horrifying with the tribal and thumping instrumentation at play later on the track. And with all this chaos at play, the track ‘The Human’ shows a light at the end of the tunnel, seeing Ken M come to terms with what has happened, and is ready to try and move on, like the human he is.
But...with all of the praise I’m giving to this record, there are issues with the album that I have that don’t make it quite as great for me as it could be. For starters, for how large scale this record is clearly trying to go for, the DIY production and shaky vocal passages really don’t help this record achieve that wider scope. Yes, you could make the case this issue is even greater on Climb, but there the DIY and Lo-fi charm to it matched the more lowkey and somber songwriting that album had. Here, I think that some of the songs just don’t fit this type of production style all that well in my opinion, especially for how versatile the record is.
For example: the first two tracks, ‘The Basement Dweller’ (featuring We Are Only Human Once) and ‘The Gremlin’. For as peppy and as fun as the song ‘The Basement Dweller’ is, the production really lets the song down, and it kind of loses a lot of the fun that this song was trying to achieve, with the mixing and production taking away a lot of the song's punch, especially in that outro. And as ‘The Gremlin’? I’m gonna be real, with the awkward vocal effects, the underwhelming instrumental and the pretty wack mixing, this song just sounds like a straight up bad demo, which sucks to say since this track has some good conceptual ideas that I just don’t think are fleshed out all that well.
But, with those criticisms in mind, I do think that it's clear that there is huge amounts of improvement from his last album. On paper, I should like this more than Climb, and this record has only shown me more potential that Ken M can tap into. Hell, the last three tracks here are the best thing that Ken M has ever made in my opinion.
But...with all of that being said...I just do not think that this record is as good as Climb, and yes, it is basically entirely for personal reasons. I’d say that Ken M’s self titled record is a better album sonically, but...there just is no replacing what Climb did for me emotionally. As much as I want to say ‘Ken M is better then Climb!’, I just can’t. This record just doesn’t hit ME, as an individual, in the same way that Climb did when I first heard THAT record. I know that removing emotional bias is a part of reviewing music, but I just can't. Am I asking Ken M to make another Climb? God no! In fact, the fact that he is moving past that line of thinking and instead focusing on more varied songwriting shows a huge amount of talent that I think could be mined a little bit more on this record. But...for me personally, I just think that there will always be a small piece of Climb in my heart, whereas this record, while really good, just doesn’t hold that same spot.
Look, regardless of how I feel about this album compared to Climb, I really do recommend this record to those with an open mind. This album is a super interesting and emotional piece of synth-pop that is one of the most interesting albums to start the year off with. It’s a dark and depressive listen yet it maintains an extremely fun energy that I cannot deny, with tracks that will hopefully make my best of the year list! Does it have its issues? Yes, but if you can look past the DIY aesthetic of this album, then you are in for a lovely ride with Ken M into his mind.
I’m going to go cry like a baby now. Goo Goo Gah Gah.
Favorite Jams: The Monster, The Persona, Fantasize
Lest Favorite: The Gremlin