“Collage” by the Chainsmokers

The Chainsmokers are one of Pop music’s most surprising stories of redemption. Back when they first came on the scene with the reprehensible viral novelty “#Selfie”, they seemed like little more than a bad Youtube novelty act encroaching on the realm of Pop music. But the hit single from their previous EP, “Roses”, established them as a legitimate EDM producing act. This EP continued that process, but also did some damage to their reputation for another reason.

Unfortunately, the worst track on this album, “Closer” featuring Halsey (who has made a respectable career for herself since, but was primarily known at the time for the decisively horrible “New Americana”), sat at the top of the Billboard charts for more than three months and refused to budge. This undeserved success has led some people to exaggerate the awfulness of the song itself, which really isn’t quite rock bottom.

The composition itself is actually rather interesting, with an intriguingly offbeat concept: write a song about a couple reuniting after years apart, but with humorously incongruous lyrics that demonstrate exactly why they broke up in the first place. This is certainly a much better comedic concept than “#Selfie” ever had, but the joke doesn’t really land. Unlike “New Americana”, it actually succeeds in capturing that brand of irony particular to the Millenial generation…the problem is that the result isn’t really all that funny.

More damningly, the beat is the weakest on the EP, underpowered and tinny-sounding. On top of that, one of the production duo sings half of the vocals on this duet, and he is spectacularly unqualified as a singer. Seriously, this guy makes Calvin Harris sound like Barry White. At any rate, the song is not remotely strong enough to withstand its massive overexposure, and the whole world seems to have gotten sick of it by now.

This has unfortunately led some critics to dismiss the entire EP as trash, which seems a massive overreaction and a damned shame, because there’s some very good material here. Like Taylor Swift’s Red or Future’s Honest, this album wound up putting its worst material in the most prominent place, but the rest of the disc is actually some of the best EDM we had seen on the Pop charts in a while at that time.

The first track on the EP, and the only one not released as a separate single prior to its release, is “Setting Fires”. On an album consisting mostly of Calvin Harris-influenced dance ballads, this is the only song to go for a funkier, more uptempo feel, and it does so in a quite satisfying fashion, providing a burst of variety and energy than helps keep the EP interesting and get things off to a lively start. I’ve heard some people complain that this song has offensive ‘woman-as-helpless-appendage-of-man’ implications, but that just strikes me as bizarre, given that the entire subject of the song is her declaring that she won’t make senseless sacrifices for this man anymore.

“All We Know” has almost the same melody as “Closer”, but with a vastly superior beat and lyrics. It also could be argued to have vaguely similar subject matter (both are about hanging onto dysfunctional relationships), but this song plays the concept as sad and quietly bittersweet rather than bitterly comic as “Closer” does. Featured vocalist Phoebe Ryan gives this touching ballad a distinctive and haunting sound that is miles ahead of anything its more famous cousin achieves.

The high point of this album is “Don’t Let Me Down”. This song was a double subversion of listeners’ expectations, because it combined the Chainsmokers with teen Pop star Daya, best known for such execrable items as “Hide Away” and “Sit Still, Look Pretty”. And yet, in spite of this seemingly dubious combination, it wound up being probably the best EDM hit of the entire year. An emotional dance ballad in the Calvin Harris vein with some DJ Snake-esque Trap influences worked into the beat, it ranks with the finest EDM hits of the decade. It also features a glorious vocal performance from Daya…on her own songs, she generally tries to sound like Rihanna, which is not at all a good fit for her, but here we can finally see why people were initially calling her a vocal prodigy.

The album’s least successful single, “Inside Out”, is a capable song, with an attractive chiming sound to the beat and suitably impassioned love-song lyrics reminiscent of songs like “Beneath Your Beautiful”. But without the haunting sadness of an “All We Know” or the explosive impact of a “Don’t Let Me Down” (or, I suppose, the obscene career luck of a “Closer”), it never made much of an impact on the charts. Still, it’s a more than respectable song that certainly deserved success more than “Closer” ever did.

These guys still have a tendency to make asses of themselves in interviews, which might also hurt their perceived credibility, but as producers and songwriters, they’ve proven themselves quite capable and earned a fair measure of respect, at least as far as their art itself goes. The critics who excoriated this album because they were annoyed at the undeserved success of its worst single seem to be missing the fact that, as far as EDM goes, these guys were pretty much the best thing we had on the Pop scene in 2016. No, this EP doesn’t necessarily reach the level of the best EDM from the genre’s glory years like 2012 or 2013, but it’s a Hell of a lot better than, say, Justin Bieber’s EDM stuff or anything Calvin Harris released that year, and “Don’t Let Me Down” would be a treasure in any year. The “Closer” issue notwithstanding, this is a highly respectable record consisting of precisely 80% good content, and it’s worth exploring to find out what these guys are capable of outside of their terminally overexposed Number One hit.

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