There’s so much going on around this album that it’s difficult to know where to start. For one, the artistic trajectory of Poppy is one that barely makes a lick of sense, from her start on YouTube with muted, uncanny vignettes that are as fascinating as they are unnerving, to bringing that same energy to making music that drew on a lot of J-pop and other similarly sugary, hyper-focused sounds. But between the dalliances with metal and industrial music on 2018’s Am I A Girl? to collaborations with Bring Me The Horizon and Fever 333 that placed her in a completely different musical landscape, Poppy’s career path has undergone less of a lateral move and more of a leap to somewhere that, with hindsight, has always seemed to make sense, but never appeared as though it’d be properly capitalised on. But for almost a year now, Poppy’s existence within music has been underscored by severing ties to her old self in whichever way possible, moving from Diplo’s Mad Decent label to Sumerian to properly solidify her new genre identity, and distancing herself from former collaborative partner Titanic Sinclair amidst various allegations of abuse. Right now, Poppy is bearing the title of one of alternative music’s most hotly-tipped stars both on her own and on her own terms, and kicking off 2020 with I Disagree feels like as fresh a start as she can get to solidify that presence for good.
And then comes the reaction of “Is this it?” that’s become all too common with albums bigged up to this extent, as I Disagree is inevitably unable to live up to so much of the furore that’s engulfed it thus far. Except this time, that statement might be even more prominent, especially as both the sonic and aesthetic throughlines that Poppy has teased to lead into something much weirder and darker don’t exactly materialise, instead winding up as a metal album that’s not necessarily terrible and does have something fairly distinct going for it, but doesn’t do enough with it. As much as Poppy has succeeded in overhauling her entire artistic persona, stopping short of real greatness feels like a missed opportunity, and it’s one that I Disagree has to deal with more than once.
Somewhat surprisingly, it’s Poppy herself that proves to be something of a roadblock to that, as well. For an artist whose primary shtick has come from how unnerving she can come across, I Disagree sees strikingly little of that come into play, as Poppy instead moves into an approximation of a more traditional rock artist that doesn’t really flatter her as a vocalist. For all the Babymetal comparisons that this project’s direction has welcomed, there’s nothing close to the tightness of melodies or soaring power-metal bombast that that band can bring here. There are moments that get close like the chorus of Concrete which can quite literally be described as bubblegum-pop or the fragments of Japanese wedged into the title track, but against this more outwardly brash instrumental selection, a lot of the weaknesses and shortcomings in Poppy’s vocals are exposed rather quickly. As much as her chirpier delivery has been generally eased back on, there’s not enough sonorous presence in her lower range to get that technique to work all that much, and trying to scream or fill the role of a rock singer entirely like on BLOODMONEY winds up in a series of shouts that sound more petulant than angry, save for Bite Your Teeth where using harsher affectations more sparingly is perhaps the only time that can convey the unsettled atmosphere that’s primarily being shot for.
With that in mind though, you can at least tell there’s been some effort put into meeting that goal with a lot of the instrumental choices, particularly when the more industrial or electronic side of Poppy’s creativity is brought to the fore. As much as Anything Like Me jacks from Billie Eilish’s bury a friend in its percussive, pitch-black minimalism and disturbed malevolence, the added blasts of guitar on the chorus do have a potency to them, while the Marilyn Manson-style chugs of Fill The Crown and the propulsive darkwave spikes of Sit / Stay cultivate a clinical yet razor-sharp sound that easily yields the best results. It highlights a bit of the over-simplicity that comes when Poppy’s band doubles down on their rock side, tending to favour nu-metal on Concrete or Fill The Crown that do the job (particularly in the case of the latter with some cannily-placed backing vocals sounding a lot like Jonathan Davis), but it makes for a rather stark disconnect all the same. This isn’t an album with much flow, even within individual songs, and running the gamut from terse, electronic pulses to lighter, borderline trip-hop fare on Sick Of The Sun can come across like Poppy fishing for an identity within a pool of related ideas that, in itself, is fairly wide. At least the production holds up, with all the polish of a big-budget rock album and few of the more obvious concessions made, and that does at least give I Disagree of taste of the consistency that it’s otherwise missing.
Honestly the biggest source of consistency here is the thematic path that Poppy takes, with the whole album effectively seeing her bury her past musical identity on Concrete before going on a fairly extended screed about the pop industry’s restrictions and predatory practices that she’s not willing to adhere to or take sitting down. Especially for where this album lands, that’s not a bad concept at all, and it’s easy to picture lyrics like “Never forget the excess of a man because the grabbing hands always grab what they can” on BLOODMONEY having Sinclair’s shadow cast over them. Indeed, with tracks like Sit / Stay and Don’t Go Outside painting a picture of ever-narrowing restrictions placed on Poppy’s music by an industry less tolerant of artistic freedom, it does make the scattered nature of this album make sense, but from a purely lyrical standpoint, this isn’t really ripping the shackles off the extent that it wants to believe it is. The language doesn’t go too far beyond the dark-pop that’s become a lot more accepted today for one, and while generally solid on its own merits, that lack of greater depth can be unfortunately limiting for an artist who wants to prove how far outside of that mainstream space she wants to go.
It’s all rather emblematic of I Disagree as a whole, an album that wants to cram a whole lot of big ideas and powerful moves into itself, but can’t arrange them or build upon them convincingly enough to make good on so many ambitions. Credit to Poppy for even trying such a drastic reinvention, and honestly, had she gone any further than this it probably would’ve suffered even more, but I Disagree feels like an album that could be a lot more with just a bit extra time and care put into it. There’s a lot of good ideas in this, and at her best Poppy really can sell this darker material with aplomb, but neither show up regularly enough to make for the best possible outcome. It’s a missed opportunity on the whole, and one that feels rather blatant in how severe that miss is.
For fans of: Bring Me The Horizon, Billie Eilish, Marilyn Manson
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘I Disagree’ by Poppy is out now on Sumerian Records.