The success or failure of a Happy Meal toy often lies with the showiness of its doohickey, its gimmick. For instance, does the plastic replica of the penguin from Frozen dance upon pressing the button on its backside? Does it sing? Do its arms move? It’s also important to note that even though the doohickey may be game-changing, it can’t transcend an already bad toy.
The debut LP from Swedish synthpop outfit NONONO, We Are Only What We Feel, is that bad toy, a windup gizmo of sonic doohickies smothered by the forgettable songs they’re found in. There’s the whistle riff on “Pumpin Blood”, the slurred chiptune shrill on “Fire Without a Flame”, and the Panda Bear-esque keyboard sparkle on “Down Under”. All of these individual gimmicks are way more creative and memorable than the songs themselves, which suggests that We Are Only What We Feel could work well as a remix template for better, smarter synthpop artists like Grimes, Lorde, or GEMS.
But this would require axing nearly every other aspect of the music, especially the lyrics. “Please go back to the jungle where you came from/ Playing with the girl like swingers with the monkeys,” sings Stina Wäppling on “Jungle”. Somewhere in this near-inscrutable line is a metaphor for what she wants to say. Wäppling doesn’t lack passion; her anger feels palpable and real. Like much of We Are Only What We Feel, however, it’s horribly underdeveloped.
The record’s only real redeeming factor is its catchy immediacy. We Are Only What We Feel works best when its listener is only partially paying attention, a state of mind that helps make its glaring flaws — such as the garishness of its bells and whistles, the predictability of its song structures, and its clunky lyrics — less obvious. Nobody scrutinizes the Happy Meal toy; it’s a bonus item in a bag of nuggets and fries that’ll inevitably end up in the garbage or lost in some backseat crevice. The stakes are pretty low. We Are Only What We Feel, if you go in expecting very little, can provide some background noise pleasure. But it only lights up for three seconds at a time. And then it’s trash.
Essential Tracks: “Pumpin Blood”, “One Wish”