Everyone knows how powerful of a tool nostalgia can be. It’s only natural that familiarity produces a heightened emotional response, but leveraging how deeply that familiarity runs can, in itself, mask some of the more explicit flaws in a piece of work and bakes in those reference points even further to where they overtake any discernible quality as the prime stimulus. All of that is to say, people like what they know, and MOBS might as well have that statement tattooed across each one of their foreheads. The Melbourne band have never made a secret of their deep affinity for ‘80s pop in their work (something that the positioning of the current nostalgic dial only seems to facilitate more), but that’s been built in to their debut album Cinema Paradiso in a way that incorporates films into the equation, with each track being thematically linked to a different movie from the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s the sort of shameless channelling of love for the past that results in WMD-grade nostalgia pretty much across the board, but if it’s something that works, it’s hard to deny that MOBS have hit a particularly fertile streak in terms of what they’re capable of reaching.
But while Cinema Paradiso isn’t a bad album, it also highlights the limitations that come from prioritising the presence of anachronistic touchstones in such a way that overshadows the creative output itself. There’s definitely a recognisability here, and that does a decent amount for MOBS when combined with a keen ear for a sticky retro-pop chorus, but strip back that flash and artifice and what’s left is pretty hollow on the whole. It doesn’t help that it’s not all quite as tight as the best music of this stripe can be, and even if MOBS do hit those strong pop moments on occasion, it can also be easy to see how the blatant emphasis of the throwback nature of it all is the dominant force in a rather distracting way.
That’s perhaps most noticeable in the writing, which the majority of listeners would be all-too-quick to dismiss as the sort of rigid pop framework if it wasn’t for how MOBS try to weave in their reference points to create the illusion of some kind of depth. It’s generally pretty thin as well (Close To The Sun is still a pretty rote self-esteem anthem but features the word ‘maverick’ to nail down its Top Gun homage), and while there’s a briskness in style that prevents MOBS from becoming too bogged-down in following these set patterns, there’s really not a whole lot to examine here. In fairness, it’s not like it’s too egregious as tracks like Find Another You and Big World can at least eke out some infectiousness from their rather stock and shallow thematic templates, but there’s also the niggling feeling that MOBS could do more here. And yes, there is a distinct awkwardness when they do lean deeper in that direction with love songs based on Terminator and E.T. with I’ll Be Back and Home With You respectively, but it still feels like, for a project like this that’s rooted in its distinct niche, even just a bit more adventurousness wouldn’t go amiss.
Of course, given that Cinema Paradiso is, by all intents and purposes, a pop album drawing from an era that was big on artificiality and projecting it as widely as possible, it’s not all that surprising it’s turned out this way. At least when they do fully embrace it, it puts a clearer focus on the album’s melodic strengths, unequivocally MOBS’ strongest suit throughout. There’s definitely a penchant for tipping into the cheesiness of ‘80s pop with School’s Out invoking High School Musical more than it does Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Way Back channelling a face-screwing mashup of Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go and – fittingly – McFly at their most saccharine, but on the whole, the tight, wiry compositions that have come to define ‘80s throwback-pop in the modern day feel just as well-executed here. The splashy neon synths and ridiculously focused bass and thinned-out guitars on I’ll Be Back and Cruel Intentions are always going to be an easy sell, and with the added saxophone on Find Another You and the synth-horns on Big World and Take It Slow, there’s an added colour that MOBS get so much out of. There’s a smoothness that feels further compounded when MOBS play to the more atmospheric side of the sound, especially on closer Stand By You that stretches out its quivering tableau of keys and synths in a way that might be a bit too long, but captures a wistfulness that this sound pulls off exceptionally potently.
Honestly, taken purely as a throwback album (something that’s rather easy to do when the references aren’t that intrusive), there’s quite a lot to like about Cinema Paradiso as far as compositional strength and unfettered catchiness goes. It’s just that MOBS are clearly looking to do more than that, and the fact that’s been so well-publicised but only passingly embraced feels indicative of a band who haven’t been willing to take the risks in front of them that potentially would’ve benefitted them. It’s worked for a band like Ice Nine Kills and their leaning into horror, and had MOBS taken a similar approach here with lyrical framing that’s a lot more distinct, this could’ve been something really worth singing the praises of. As it stands though, Cinema Paradiso is still an okay listen from a purely compositional standpoint, and there’s still room for what’s here to resonate, but taking a few more chances in future is something that’ll only pay more satisfying dividends for MOBS moving forward.
For fans of: Wham!, Bruno Mars, WhoHurtYou
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Cinema Paradiso’ by MOBS is released on 21st February on Rude Records.