We close four-letter acronym day with the day’s
Katie Gill: I still don’t know what entirely “dark pop” is, especially since somehow both MUNA and Dua Lipa are considered dark pop. But as a pop song, MUNA knows exactly what the target demographic is: college radio stations. And wow do we have a perfectly crafted college radio jam. It’s unconventional enough in instrumentation to push past those Top 40 naysayers but conventional enough in structure to be a decent song. The lyrics of a love that just quite doesn’t work but you still want to make it work dammit describe a scenario that every person’s experienced, every college student even more so. That heavy modified vocal harmony calls to mind another staple of college radio, Imogen Heap (or, at least, the staple of MY college radio (go Panthers!)). Plus, I mean, the song’s called winter break. You can’t really get more college than that.
Alfred Soto: The beat box and synth glaze recall the retro stylings of Chvrches and early Chairlift without the tension unless I count the voice distortion. Often retro stylings are just retro stylings.
Will Adams: There’s something heartbreaking about the way “Winterbreak” opens so expansively, like slow panning shots of glaciers fissuring, only to zoom in on a quiet narrative of a fissuring relationship. It reflects the disillusionment of the lyrics, each verse more convinced of the chorus’ central line, “This is a love that we won’t get right,” as vocoders tighten around Katie Gavin’s voice. Sometimes it’s best to just let it crack.
Katherine St Asaph: It’s impossible to overstate just how predisposed I was to hate this: another band with an ACRNMD name that calls itself “dark pop” (it rarely is), boasts its R&B and synthpop influences, has fake Windows 95 shit on their website and a song title that makes an ooh-it’s-artsy portmanteau of their college academic calendar. But I don’t hate this, not remotely. The (self-produced) backing track hints at Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis over the Earthbound soundtrack; the vocal hints at Tracey Thorn; the lyric is a bit self-consciously alt-lit but with more good moments than par; the entirety hints at the best-case scenario of those rumblings a year back that Taylor Swift was considering skewing “indie.” Sometimes cynicism is bad.
Taylor Alatorre: Our content streams will never lack for Buzzfeed-approved chillout pop that bends over backwards to be #relatable to the youths. Much of it can safely be ignored, but this one rises above the morass by prioritizing a cohesive narrative over nebulous “aesthetics.” Underneath all the soft edges and Imogen Heap stylings, there’s a backbone and a pulse. My only wish is that the utter fatalism persisted to the end, if only to better match my own regrettable experience, which took place over Thanksgiving break and was a good deal less thrilling. Such is the depth of immersion created here: I found myself hoping against hope that these two fumbling college students would heed their better natures and leave the past firmly in the past, until one of them brought alcohol into the picture and it was all over. Don’t make any major life decisions while listening to this.
Cassy Gress: My god, this slate-grey epitaph of a song carries all the audible heartbreak that the lyrics conjure. The soft vocoder behind Katie Gavin’s voice is the echoes of the previous tries at this futile relationship, and it reaches out for your heart and slowly pulls it in two, as your feet unwillingly carry you out the door onto the stark, dirt-slushed street.
Peter Ryan: It’s sort of remarkable how this manages to tap different nostalgias without getting stuck in them — the not-really-relationship at hand is a relic but it’s ongoing in the here and now; the production, as is (still) contemporary Best Practice, declares itself Pop via 80’s sonic signposts, but unlike many of its peers the crocodile chomp handclaps and dream pop accent strumming are parts of a whole that avoids sounding self-consciously dated. The real achievement here though is Katie Gavin’s glorious sympathetic jerk of a narrator. At some level she’s definitely sad about how things turned out but in the moment her primary concern is getting the object of her desires back into bed. Her come-ons are a little too bold-faced, self-centered, condescending verging into manipulative — “And I know that I broke your heart/but always such a smart one, always so intelligent/you must know that I took it hard.” It’s an exercise in crushing hopes and then ever so slightly giving them a bit of air, but it’s never clear what kind of front this is, who she’s playing harder — herself, into believing she’s not still attached, or the other person, into believing that the door is still cracked. It’s melodrama for sure, but a meticulously-crafted one and befitting of its college-aged characters. Maybe I wish Gavin were a shade less subdued or McPherson and Maskin’s dueling guitars were mixed higher, but mostly I’m just in awe of MUNA’s collective powers.
Edward Okulicz: If your idea of Imogen Heap is that she has two songs, “Hide and Seek” and “Goodnight and Go,” then you could plausibly believe that she now has a third. MUNA’s take on that sound is a lot more obvious from a songwriting perspective, but at the same time if I take my attention away, I’ve got no idea what the lyrics even are. That stops me really getting into the narrative other than one moment that does emerge out of the fog (it’s a pretty fog, mind you): “I think I’m gonna kiiiiiiss you!” — in a different song might have been a thrilling emotional peak, here it’s almost light relief, but it does make me crack a little smile.
Brad Shoup: Winter break with the next year’s hindsight: self-aware and yet not, fatalistic when wistfulness is a few more years hence. Their percussive palette is gorgeous, goosing the improvisational-feeling lurch. That lurch is Björkian, but the master knows that you have to describe the moment how it is, not how you want it to read.