Okay, so Brian Wilson is a hugely influential person. Surprise! His acolytes have been making, altogether, about an album per week since Pet Sounds came out. And one listen to Memphis and you can hear Wilson, Belle & Sebastian, and the greats of pop music history in the Magic Kids. But here’s the actual surprise: Memphis is an incredible album. Disciples of Wilson have come and gone, but this is one to be remembered.
The boys from Memphis (hence the album title) have made an album that could rival the great pop songwriters of the mid-’60s. Memphis is an album of ear worms — you could swear you’ve heard these songs before. And it plays like an album from the era just after Sgt. Pepper’s — when songwriters realized the full potential of the album. The album’s flow is stellar and it maintains a consistent-but-not-boring feel to it without having to play the “concept album” card. And with a run time under 30 minutes, it ends all too soon.
The album opens with “Phone”, an upbeat jaunt with strings and pianos. Bennett Foster sings about waiting by the phone “until you come home.” It’s a total “skip through the sunshine” love song, and the majority of the album is like that. It’s not a heavy-hearted tale of longing that you’d get from some art house film– it’s schoolyard love set to meticulously crafted orchestrations. And the schoolyard is all the more obvious in “Hey Boy”, when a choir of children sing, “Hey boy,/ Where’s your girlfriend?” Most of the lyrics on the album are like that– simple and playful.
But it’s not like the album is just song after song of primary colored schoolkid love. “Candy” is far more understated even with its syrupy lyrics (“There’s no candy sweeter than my baby”). For the most part, the song is built on a foundation of guitars and percussion instead of big, grandiose orchestrations. And that understatement leads right into “Superball,” which is another fast-paced, brightly colored romp with synths, strings, and naturally, lyrics about love.
And when they’re not talking about love, they’re talking about the glories of summer– track titles “Skateland”, “Sailin'”, and “Summer” should be hints in that direction. The biggest downfall to Memphis is that it’s coming at the tail end of the summer — this should’ve been the one you played while you were driving to the theme park or the beach or wherever you were going on vacation.
If Memphis sounds like a terrible album because I’ve just described its inherent cheeriness, that’s an understandable reaction. But like any pop album that deals with love and happiness, you have to meet on its playing field. If you’re in a bad mood, of course you’ll probably think the Magic Kids are trying to be better than you. If you just had a terrible break-up and never want to speak to men/women/anybody again, then you’ll find this album repulsive. But with those biases aside, listen to Memphis on a good day. Eat your favorite candy and go for a drive out in the country while it’s sunny and give it a listen. In the right mindset, it could be one of the best pop albums you’ve ever heard.