When WILLOW released t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l a few months back, it was obvious that the alternative scene would fire at the first chance to be onboard. That’s nothing new in the most modern permutation of the scene, especially when WILLOW meets both the necessary criteria looked for to put all the chips behind—an existing celebrity, and an artist making a ‘bold’ genre transition to pop-punk. The whole industry machine works like clockwork for these sorts of moves, but admittedly the voracity around this one is what caught the most attention. With one pop-punk song under her belt (with a bit of assistance by Travis Barker to get it there, naturally), WILLOW was already in receipt of the magazine covers and column inches that new bands and artists would kill for. It definitely puts some emphasis on how much existing star power and privilege plays a role over the vaunted meritocracy that alternative music tends to put forward (especially when your dad is Will Smith), but what’s more telling is how quickly and routinely the justifications were being rolled out. Yes, her mother fronted the nu-metal band Wicked Wisdom, and yes, she’s been pretty vocal about her love of pop-punk and emo while in school, but neither of those things really justify the immediate fawning response and rolled-out welcome mat she’s been offered on the barest possible evidence. People seem to forget she’s been a pretty chameleonic artist at the best of times, and there’s definitely a vibe of opportunism that comes from leaping on the bandwagon right now when pop-punk is the most popular it’s been in years, especially for rappers looking to make the jump over.
Well, let’s straighten things out first of all—t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l is definitely not representative of lately I feel EVERYTHING as a whole, and in some ways, that’s both to its credit and its notable downfall. WILLOW has never been an artist to sit still, and fencing herself into the processed pop-punk junk food of the 2020s entirely would feel like an artist diminishing their own creativity for no reason. Instead, lately I feel EVERYTHING is a lot more excitable, as it skirts around punk, garage-rock, indie-rock and its own take on soul-inflected alternative music (think Black Pumas but rougher around the edges), in a way that’s a lot more befitting of WILLOW’s already dense artistic legacy. And yet, opting to keep around the cheap-and-cheerful approach that has made that modern pop-punk wave so disposable puts a tight cap on what this album can actually achieve, and how much it can actually do before it prematurely decides that it’s overstaying its welcome. It’s a weird case of wildly fluctuating expectations that seemingly hit none of what’s been thrown at it from any side, but if nothing else, what could’ve been just another ‘alternative star by birthright’ situation is at least more interesting to talk about.
Even so, it’s probably easier to start with what doesn’t work on this album, given that it’s the most prevalent factor basically throughout its runtime. What it can effectively be boiled down to is how WILLOW will continue to exercise the pick-and-choose aspect of inhabiting a certain musical style—something she’s done in the past with pop, hip-hop, R&B and indie—which the brands of rock she’s looking to slide into aren’t equipped to really deal with. FUCK You feels the most evident example, blending the least desirable attributes of both modern garage-rock and pop-punk in the sloppy formlessness of the former and the truncated-to-the-point-of-worthlessness execution of the latter, to make a pretty awful first piece of new music after t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l opens. Spread that across the rest of the album, and it makes for a shabby, unfocused listen that never feels as though it’s set on a clear idea, and instead feels content with sampling whatever it can without bothering to form a full, cogent product from it. There are cool ideas buried away in don’t SAVE ME and 4ever, but they feel more like proofs of concept for WILLOW’s alt-rock shake-up to take place rather than fully-formed songs. There’s definitely a ghost of a justification to be made for that, when the lyrics ricochet through Gen Z angst that might be wide-firing but thankfully refrains from too many abject clichés (and on naïve and XTRA even picks up a certain degree of insight). It doesn’t really go far enough though, not when so much of the album is as inconsistent and piecemeal as this is.
But in a weird sort of way, that’s where the charm of lately I feel EVERYTHING lies. Compared to the pop-punk ‘experiments’ that WILLOW has been hitherto grouped with, and how pristine and polished to a fault they are, something like this displaying a degree of creativity is at least taking a bigger swing. Travis Barker is an obvious guest star as a hired gun for anything even vaguely touching pop-punk, but Avril Lavigne and Tierra Whack are decidedly outside the usual pool, and when the closer ¡BREAKOUT! effectively has WILLOW fronting Cherry Glazerr for a song, it’s a lot more engaging that just some stock pop-punk riffs and beats (even despite the very questionable vocal production). Those moments do show up, of course, in t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l and G R O W most notably, but it’s the lack of the blood oath to blink-182 that makes this whole album stand out more. There’s an adventurousness that others in her position are petrified of, and yet WILLOW embraces it wholeheartedly. She’s definitely a different sort of artist in that regard; she feels more comfortable on songs like naïve and Come Home, free from copy-and-pasted tempos and chords for a more free-flowing presence to come out, particularly with the transfusing guitars on the latter. Hell, you can tell from the first song that’ll be the case, when t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l has her curling her voice for a blatant Hayley Williams impression for camouflage within the pop-punk backdrop; it’s not bad but it’s a side of WILLOW that’s less exciting. Even for as wildly inconsistent as the production is, that will still add to the warped charm the album stumbles into, where there isn’t always the most depth or well-rounded of mixes, but, again, it’s something different. It’s from that perspective that the way this era was initially boxed in does a lot for lately I feel EVERYTHING now that it’s actually dropped, where the full mural of WILLOW’s alternative vision can be viewed and extrapolated in all of its misshapen glory.
Granted, that’s more so within the lane it’s been placed in; in a vacuum, this is an album that errs towards positive in how some of its ideas and individual songs land, but as a whole body of work, will not stick the landing nearly as well. But at least this doesn’t feel like a blatant cash-grab or meticulously planned career move, and the fact that WILLOW will ultimately be given the same high pedestal for a far more diverse and interesting album is a win at the end of the day. A small victory, certainly, but the fact there’s a level of artistry that vastly supersedes most of the hypebeast pop-punk set is something to be thankful for overall. It at least feels more plausible that this is a direction WILLOW could continue in rather than a brief detour while the stylistic iron is hot, something that the buildup never really hinted towards, but that too is one of the pleasant surprises that lately I feel EVERYTHING yields. It’s a weird, uneven little album that never pretends to be anything different, something that proves massively flawed but also an oddity worth taking a look at.
For fans of: THE ANXIETY, Cherry Glazerr, Yungblud
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘lately I feel EVERYTHING’ by WILLOW is out now on MSFTSMusic / Roc Nation Records.