“Happier” by Marshmello and Bastille

EDM producer Christopher Comstock, a.k.a. Marshmello, takes a lot of crap for his sugary, hyperactive producing style, but the guy does have his moments. His specialty is bringing tinges of euphoria to songs that are otherwise powerful expressions of deeply felt sorrow, and when he’s able to stick to that formula, he’s actually quite effective.

This song, his biggest hit to date, is a perfect example of that emotional balancing act. It’s a collaboration with former Indie Rock band Bastille, who are known for their richly emotional songs such as “Pompeii”, and it would actually be quite depressing if not for the production here. Bastille were already very much an Electropop band, so working with an EDM producer doesn’t really depart from their usual sound all that much, but Marshmello’s distinctive production style manages to make this song feel very different from Bastille’s work under their own banner.

This same basic exchange holds true for all of Marshmello’s more respectable hits. His breakthrough hit, the striking “Wolves”, contrasts Selena Gomez’s haunting descriptions of romantic obsession in the foreground with his fizzing, tingling beats as a backdrop to create one of the most intoxicating hits of Gomez’s career, and he adds the necessary overtones of hope and optimism to Halsey’s “Be Kind” and Demi Lovato’s “Okay Not To Be Okay”.

The problem with Marshmello’s work, and the thing that has brought him the ill repute that he has received, if that if you put him on his own on an instrumental track, or with a collaborator who is incapable of making that intense dramatic contrast, his sugar-high production style just sounds frivolous and saccharine. And I’m sad to say that scenario has happened more than a few times over the course of his career: a lot of his singles really do come across as bland and inane, and his albums, which mostly consist of him laying down instrumentals with no collaborators at all, are of virtually no interest whatsoever.

But the guy does have a certain effectiveness when he stays in the appropriate paradigm, and the people who dismiss him altogether aren’t being fair to him. It reminds me of not entirely undeserved but greatly exaggerated flack that the last EDM superstars in this field, the Chainsmokers, tended to receive, and say what you will about Comstock, at least he’s been wise enough never to attempt to do his own singing.

Verdict: Good.

“You Belong With Me” by Taylor Swift

This was one of the biggest hits from Swift’s Grammy-winning sophomore album Fearless, which ranks as her first real masterpiece and had a major role in revitalizing the Pop album as an art form. This is also the song that initially led this author into his current devotion to Ms. Swift’s music: I’m not ashamed to admit that the thing that first drew my interest to her was when this song was being played over a restaurant’s sound system and I caught a particular succinct and skillful bit of character-establishing shorthand in the space of two lines: “She wears short skirts/I wear T-shirts”.

The original recording was admittedly less than perfect, though. The Pop-Country production was very ‘of its time’, shall we say: it sounds seriously dated today, and even at the time it gave this fresh-faced, innocent love song more of a homogenized ‘bubblegum’ feel than it needed, resulting in a lot of critics both professional and amateur underestimating its deceptively sophisticated songwriting for many years.

The song’s other problem was that Swift hadn’t really come into her own as a vocalist at the time it was originally recorded, and her performance can admittedly be a little shrill in places.

Fortunately, both problems have been neatly solved on the recent re-recording of the Fearless album. They gave this song a new, more sophisticated production that flatters its songwriting style much more and seems likely to age better as well, and Swift’s vocals have immensely improved during the intervening years, leading to a much smoother and more subtle vocal performances with none of the shriller notes heard on the original recording.

In short, any plausible complaint that could be made about the original song has been corrected by the new recording. Along with the autobiographical retrospective “Fifteen”, this is probably the song that has gained the most from the re-recording process, and it seems likely to command far more respect from the critical community in the future.

Verdict: Extremely good even in the original version, but damned near perfect on the re-recording.