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The Chainsmokers Are Legit Now, and Also Boring

On the first — really! — album from the bad boys of EDM

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

To the extent that the Chainsmokers, as humans or artistés, can disappoint anyone — with the spatial assumption that you hold them in high enough regard that they could let you down — it’s a huge drag that these fellas are even releasing a plain old album. On Friday, the tastefully garish pop-EDM duo of Alex Pall and Drew Taggart capped off several years of nearly unprecedented singles-chart domination with Memories … Do Not Open, their debut full-length. Which is surprising in that it exists at all: Last year they threatened to never make a full album unless fan demand became insatiable. But here we are. It’s out on their manager’s Sony imprint, Disruptor Records. That label name used to fit.

Yeesh. What a quaint and antiquated move this is, right down to the ellipsis in the title. Even Drake claims he doesn’t make albums anymore; if you’re releasing this, it’s too late. What initially made the Chainsmokers great, or at least pleasantly disconcerting, was their out-of-nowhere rise from anonymity to dazzling but still anonymous-seeming stardom. Few major pop stars had been that unrecognizable for that long, doing big numbers while inspiring, en masse, just the one question: “Who?” Their big break was 2014’s monumentally uncouth “#SELFIE,” which is horrible, but impressively so: With its vapid-party-girl deadpan and blaring bottle-service contempt, it sounds like a Father John Misty parody of an EDM song. Any adults and/or music-biz blowhards who happened to be paying attention immediately fled in terror. That, in retrospect, was probably the point.

A few years later, we awoke to find the Chainsmokers dominating pop radio and raiding the Billboard Hot 100 with a string of fizzy club anthems, from 2015’s “Roses” to last year’s insidious one-two punch of “Don’t Let Me Down” and the maddeningly ubiquitous no. 1 smash “Closer.” They shoved aside boldface-name pop stars despite being nowhere close to boldface names themselves. “Don’t Let Me Down” is still the gold standard, with Pittsburgh singer-songwriter Daya handling the vocals and gravitas. The fiendishly effective pattern was established: lovelorn seedy-young-person lyrics + supernova hook + wordless bleats and blurts and artful squiggles for the chorus.

It’s not poetry, exactly, but it suffices as poetic justice. The early-2010s EDM craze, when a bewildered mainstream suddenly realized Skrillex might be a superstar and the Electric Daisy Carnival might be every bit Coachella’s equal in the massive-music-festival racket, gave quite a jolt to all the music-biz blowhards and/or adults out there. As a defense mechanism, many bewildered onlookers convinced themselves it was a blip; in a strictly commercial sense, for many industry carpetbaggers, the bubble did pop, spectacularly. But the Chainsmokers sought to prove that the jams themselves didn’t die — just the clueless hype. And they succeeded, largely by lurking in the shadows. An incinerating spotlight does these boys no favors.

Here’s where it all went wrong.

“Closer” was the no. 1 song in America on the night of the woebegone 2016 MTV Video Music Awards, and the Chainsmokers got a primo performance slot in which to pop their own bubble, spectacularly. The female singer in question — the loopy and better-established electro-pop enigma Halsey — held it together. But Taggart, as the Johnny Cash to her June Carter, was a wreck, pitchy and awkward in a fratboy-goes-to–Red Lobster button-down, like he’d bum-rushed the stage and nobody on MTV’s production staff would admit to not recognizing him. They were going for an intimate-yet-grandiose vibe, like the xx auditioning for The Voice, but turning no chairs, only stomachs. It didn’t help that Mr. Dude up there spent a decent amount of time openly groping his duet partner.

“I wasn’t ready for it,” Taggart admitted soon afterward on Instagram. “But that’s life.” Just a few weeks later, though, in a hilariously toxic Billboard cover story, he was less sanguine and more combative, allowing that “it sounded like shit,” but blaming MTV for hanging him out to dry on the mix: “I was set up to fail.” (Mariah Carey relates.) Taggart and Pall also dropped bons mots like “we rage every night,” and conceded that their official website bio included their combined penis length (17.34 inches), and trash-talked all the now-“thirsty” artists who’d blown the duo off pre-fame. (Poor Weezer.) Conclusion: These dudes are best heard and not seen, or quoted, or groomed to be boldface-name stars themselves.

This was no commercial death knell, of course: Just last month, the Chainsmokers became only the third group to place three songs in the top 10 of the Hot 100 simultaneously, joining, uh, the Beatles and the Bee Gees. More impressively, the deathless “Closer” was still one of them. The other two were early singles from Memories … Do Not Open, one promising, one very much not. Here’s the not-promising one.

Yes, it’s Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who has been Captain Out of Ideas since “A Sky Full of Stars,” and only proves on “Something Just Like This” that the Chainsmokers’ formula also doesn’t work if the guest vocalists are more famous. This might have the dumbest lyrics of any song that has ever gotten its own official lyrics video. “Paris,” thankfully, is way better, muted and wistful, with a sharp little guitar riff and a convincingly downcast air. Taggart handles the vocals, and sounds way better when invisible and studio-enhanced. There is something to build on here, if you’re willing to forget the past, but that means forgetting all those old, blaring chart toppers, too.

The first thing you notice about Memories is that Taggart sings lead on fully half of it; the most confounding thing you might notice is that it’s the better half. Sultry female voices abound, from the known knowns (Jhené Aiko) to the unknown unknowns (Emily Warren, who is pretty excellent). But it’s Taggart who sticks with you, still Going For It as an actual pop star, and grabbing your attention, albeit usually for the wrong reasons. (Chorus: “She wants to break up every night / Then tries to fuck me back to life.”) He’s going for a Sad Famous Man vibe here, the Full Drake, his jetsetter life #blessed but empty. Thesis statement, as stated on a song called “Honest”: “She don’t really love me though / I’m just on the radio.” His voice is glum and pedestrian, but it suits the mood. “Superstar pedestrian” constitutes something of a style, but it’s a Boring Full-Length Dance-Music Album style, a concession, an assimilation. These guys make way better outsiders than insiders. Their insatiable fans should demand that they never do this again.

So you take what you can get. Commercially, the prospects are still good: “Something Just Like This” sits at no. 3 on the Hot 100, though nothing here is likely to knock good old Ed Sheeran’s lousy old “Shape of You” off the top spot. Let’s root for the Chainsmokers anyway. But the weirdest thing on this album, by far, is the grand finale, “Last Day Alive,” costarring country über-bro duo Florida Georgia Line, their voices digitally stretched to high heaven and its opposite, and oh, wow, does this pairing suddenly make 8 billion different kinds of sense. Both pairs of gentlemen here are massively successful and frequently reviled in their chosen fields, their parallel careers amounting to one long, endless, triumphant keg stand. But they’re struggling now to pivot, to mature, to evolve, to parlay frat-born fame into viable adult careers. Memories … Do Not Open only sounds like a prestige play relative to what came before: the good, the bad, the ugly, the uglier. The nicest word you can use to describe it is respectable. That is also the meanest word.