The efficiency with which Against The Current have managed to hoodwink so much of alternative world into believing they’re actually a rock band is impressive, especially when they can barely pull off being a decent pop band on a good day. Of course pop music has its merits, but their debut In Our Bones relied so much on blank-faced tropes that allowed them to somehow worm their way into alternative culture because there may or may not have been a guitar buried away in there sometimes. And while they were by no means the first band to do this or emerge from the YouTube bubble in a similar fashion, it arguably set the precedent for how far tastemakers could go when it comes to broad, easily-marketable appeal.
At least it’s good that on Past Lives, Against The Current are under no illusion that they’re a rock band anymore, and have chosen to instead to embrace pop in its entirety. But even then, that raises a whole litany of new issues, chief among them being what Against The Current can actually bring of their own to the table. They’ve always struggled with putting together a cogent identity that isn’t clearly a patchwork of other acts, and while the greater realisation of their own strengths means that Past Lives is overall a better album than their debut, they’ve still got a long way to go before becoming the household-names-in-waiting that they’ve always been marketed as.
For now though, it’s worth picking up on the improvements that have been made, and bringing that pop streak to the fore has tapped into some of the catchiest moments that Against The Current have to their name. That might not sound like much on its own, but given the choice to open the album with what’s bordering on light, misty drum ‘n’ bass with Strangers Again, there’s definitely hints there of something greater being channelled, even if it’s only here and there. And indeed, the big, glossy synthpop of I Like The Way and the sassy, spiky funk-pop of Voices do get there; these are good songs and feel like a more comfortable fit for what Against The Current are aiming to do.
But that also brings up Past Lives’ first big problem, that being that isn’t consistent across the whole album at all, and stacking these songs together reveals some noticeable peaks and dips in quality as it goes along. And a lot of that is just down to the fact that Against The Current are very much a singles band, and while they’re good at keeping a handful of songs afloat at a time, their albums suffer from some severe padding and this is no exception. What’s worse is that there’s a multitude of causes for that as well, spanning from being just totally forgettable like The Fuss and Come Alive, to Chrissy Contanza’s vocals simply running on autopilot on Personal or Scream, the former remaining just as baffling as ever considering it’s about the death of a loved one in a song that sounds so nonplussed on all accounts.
But that all leads to the earlier point about Against The Current lacking a distinct identity, and if there’s one thing that Past Lives has supremely held back on, it’s the ability for that to happen. And you get the feeling that Against The Current can do it, or at least have the capacity to make what they are doing a bit more interesting; there’d be a workable premise in Personal if it was better executed, and P.A.T.T. has some surprising insight about the pressure put on women to behave in certain ways in society. They’re the minority though, and when so much of this album is taken up by fluffed-up frameworks of songs – be they breakup songs like Almost Forgot, self-esteem anthems like Friendly Reminder or whatever else – there’s nothing to gravitate towards to mark Against The Current out as anything more than just another pop act that’s as disposable as all the rest.
It’s the same thing with the instrumentation as well, and while that can be marginally looked over in spots thanks to how infectious its influence is in I Like The Way and P.A.T.T., you’d seriously struggle to tell that Against The Current is a band given how malnourished and underweight a good portion of this album is. Dan Gow seems to have been relegated to bit-player given how little his guitar work is utilised (and the majority of the time when he is here, it’s in areas like the weak, paper-thin acoustics of Almost Forgot), while Will Ferri seems to have been replaced by programmed beats and trap snares entirely seeing as there’s not even a hint of live drums on here. And sure, it’s not a necessity in pop to have live instrumentation, but when the assets are there, you could easily use them, and perhaps it could stop the production from being quite as blank and saccharine as it is.
And the fact that these key, fundamental issues have been brought over from their debut really does negate the positives and potential that are so blatant here. This could’ve been a good pop album, but Against The Current are so fixated on playing it safe that anything of real quality that does come out is negligible, and that frankly leaves Past Lives as the shadow of the album it could be. It’s good that Against The Current are realising what they’re best at, and that’s a nailed-on fact, but they’re still having trouble with everything else that really matters, and considering the quite considerable push they continue to get, they’re behind where they should be.
For fans of: SAINTE, Halsey, Hey Violet
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Past Lives’ by Against The Current is out now on Fueled By Ramen.