With every new crossover success story that emerges, it only makes the term more and more worthless. Sure, attempting to break down genre boundaries is a noble goal, but there needs to be limits, and without them, it gives outlets carte blanche to push whatever they want and proclaim it be ‘alternative’. Everyone is guilty of it to varying degrees, but it’s a necessary course of action for anyone looking to survive, both in the cases of the artists and those who cover them. Of course, it’s not as though finding quality is out of the question, but in the case of an artist like grandson (the musical alias of Jordan Benjamin) who’s been positioned as modern music’s newest political firebrand, only to deliver flavourless electro-rap and alt-pop through an incredibly by-the-numbers political lens, it’s easy to see where the frustration comes from. Granted, the drive for change is certainly there – his own movement, the XX Resistance, as a way of connecting fans to various charities at least shows a passion for social justice – but focusing solely on the music, the big descriptors and superlatives that have often accompanied how provocative and hard-hitting grandson is have never matched up to output that, historically, has been almost universally gutless.
And at the end of the day, fostering that only leads to an artist unwilling to grow and learn from their mistakes, and ultimately make better music at the end of it all. That’s what could come from grandson; he has some interesting ideas, but as his work has shown, he has no idea how to execute it properly, and a modern tragedy vol. 2 is just continuing down that train of thought, showing just how ill-equipped an artist can be to really make engaging music that can still pack in fire and venom in droves. Here, grandson barely even comes close to any of that, and what we’re left with is another cluttered, malformed mess that, even with the best intentions, is grating and joyless through and through.
Perhaps the most obvious place to start is the presentation, as that’s where it hits the most immediately when it comes to how inept grandson is portrayed here. For starters, his voice has never been appealing, co-opting Tyler Joseph’s deliberately weedy flow but contorting it around his own timbre in a way that makes every syllable feel so forced and clipped as it comes out. That’s hardly a substitute for any real presence either, and for the most part when placed in the sort degree of equally obnoxious alt-rappers, grandson is left as a fairly anonymous entity on his own EP. Of course, with instrumentation as clattering as this, that could happen to anyone, though you’d hope that most would have the good sense to avoid sounding so overbearingly brash and loud without anything to back it up. At least the annoying synth drops on his last effort has coherence with something; here, oily, textureless guitars mash against trap and unformed dubstep beats with no decent fusion of sounds, and it leads to the woozy lumber of Is This What You Wanted or the frankly horrendous pileup of discordance on Fallin (Temptation) which sound so sloppy and amateurish. At least when Rage Against The Machine would experiment with weird intricacies, it felt connected to larger scope of the song; here, grandson is clearly aiming for a similar effect, but with neither the instrumental skills nor the production quality to land anywhere near it, there’s hardly anything that sounds even remotely appealing to listen to.
It’s not like the lyrics do much more either, though credit needs to go to Stigmata for its attempts at some more interesting imagery and songcraft, which would appear to be too much work to replicate across another four songs. Points for the intent and how grandson is clearly trying make noise around his cause (quite literally, given how these songs turn out), but again, you’re left to wonder where all the furore around him as a political voice is coming from when there’s so little to take out of here. Sure, the crossover scene can hardly afford to go too transgressive, but when Apologize severs itself from the whole narrative entirely for grandson to address the mistakes he’s made in the past and how he’s grown from them, that’s verging increasingly close to falling into the underdeveloped pablum that so much of this scene is. Of course, when he does get political, it’s not much better given how broad the strokes are, like the surface-level examination of societal apathy on Is This What You Wanted, or Darkside’s portrayal of a school shooting which, if grandson really was as socially and politically conscious as he’s been spun to be, could’ve been a prime opportunity to weigh in on gun control and regulation, rather than implying the sole reason is bullying. It might seem unfair to judge this EP based on the persona that others have built for him, but on his own, grandson isn’t delivering anything that’s all that hard-hitting or visceral, mostly just resting on very broad, safe platitudes and throwing them in his weird, disconnected soup of a sound to feign some sort of transgression.
That’s not to say that this is an act or that grandson doesn’t believe in what he’s saying; he’s clearly an artist who cares and wants to get a message across. But doing so with material as flat and uninspiring as this isn’t going to help, and it just leaves a modern tragedy vol. 2 feeling like a wasted effort from an artist for whom that’s quickly becoming the norm. Again, you can see what he’s going for if you squint hard enough, but between writing that has no flavour or punch, instrumentation that only becomes more clattering and senseless with each listen, and a vocal performance that’s almost entirely drained of personality or vigour, almost every possible mark is missed. At least it’s reasonably short, and if you’re going to put out a release that’s simultaneously tough to stand and not worth paying attention to, that’s probably the best thing it can be.
For fans of: Twenty One Pilots, K.Flay, Awolnation
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘a modern tragedy vol. 2’ by grandson is out now on Fueled By Ramen.