Welcome back to another year of the singles bar! With fall only two days away, it is very clear that this season’s theme will be the tried-and-true comeback, which is especially welcome after radio’s relative monotony this summer. See how the latest pop comebacks stacked up below.
Taylor Swift, “Look What You Made Me Do” and “… Ready For It?”
It has been nearly three years since Swift’s Grammy Award-winning “1989” (2014) took the pop world by storm, selling almost 10 million copies worldwide and spawning the iconic “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood.” Following an extended quiet period, Swift is back, though the results are less than stellar.
“Look What You Made Me Do” is the lead single to her sixth studio album “Reputation” (2017), due out November 10, and it immediately underwhelms. The electroclash mid-tempo track is a jarring departure from Swift’s usual repertoire, attempting to mesh a stripped-down musical approach with a vengeful, callous tone. While it is quite possible that the track is intended to be tongue-in-cheek, à la “Blank Space” (2014), the Jack Antonoff-produced track fails to live up to the usual hype of a Swift release, instead relying on its imaginative video to back up lyrics like “‘I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now.’ / ‘Why?’ / ‘Oh, ’cause she’s dead!’ (oh!).”
The follow-up single “…Ready For It?” is marginally more successful, thanks in part to repeat collaborators Max Martin and Shellback. The opening track to “Reputation” somehow manages to sound both dated and on-trend, due to its dubstep breakdown and house-inspired chorus. The track would be vastly improved, however, without Swift’s attempt at rapping, which drags down an otherwise decent pop track.
Ratings: 2.5/5 and 3/5
Zayn, “Dusk Till Dawn”
A little over a year since his solo debut album “Mind of Mine” (2016), the former One Direction crooner is back again, this time with the lead single to his sophomore album. While “Dusk Till Dawn” is a run-of-the-mill pop power ballad, it is elevated by his collaboration with Australian singer-songwriter Sia. The two work well together to lend a heightened sense of drama and emotion to the track, which is about always being there for your lover. This can most notably be seen when the chorus comes bursting through on “But you’ll never be alone / I’ll be with you from dusk till dawn.” Though “Dusk Till Dawn” is a departure from his R&B-tinged debut, it ultimately makes a decent case for Zayn’s sophomore album, proving that he can draw upon his One Direction roots to make solid pop.
Kelly Clarkson, “Love So Soft” and “Move You”
Kelly Clarkson, the original “American Idol” (2002–present), sounds refreshed on the lead-up to her eighth studio album “Meaning of Life,” scheduled to be released on Oct. 27. With a new lease on her career following her signing with Atlantic Records, Clarkson is fusing the live instrumentation approach she took with her sixth studio album “Stronger” (2011) and embracing a more soul-inspired sound in lieu of the pop rock of her previous albums. The results are fantastic with lead single “Love So Soft” and another track from her upcoming album, “Move You.”
“Love So Soft” sounds nothing like a typical Clarkson song, instead embracing the doo-wop sound that artists like Pink and Christina Aguilera have explored to great effect. The emphasis on horns and percussion highlight the soulfulness of the track, giving importance to verses such as “Love so soft, so soft (so soft).”
“Move You,” the second track Clarkson has released in conjunction with her latest single, is a revelation. The deeply romantic ballad demonstrates how clichés can be sold convincingly in traditional pop, as Clarkson tells her lover that she wants him to feel “Like a solemn Hallelujah / Like a choir shouts “Amen” (Amen) / Like your first time falling in love / Or a stairway up to heaven.” The track is simple yet timeless, showing that the best pop music, when done correctly, can be clear-cut.
Sam Smith, “Too Good At Goodbyes”
Resident sad-boy Sam Smith has returned with his first solo release in over three years since “In the Lonely Hour” (2014). However, “Too Good At Goodbyes,” the lead single in his second studio album, falls victim to the law of diminishing returns, committing the cardinal offense of being too inoffensive. For the single, Smith reuses many of the same tricks from his landmark hit “Stay with Me” (2014), including a choir and banal lyrics to convey an overwhelming sense of sadness. For some artists, such as the British songstress Adele, it is possible to build a brand around a shtick, though that brand only works if the material is convincing. Here, Smith sounds too calculated and repetitive to pull it off, making for an underwhelming comeback.