“Singles.” “Seven inches.” “Records.” Whatever you want to call them, I’m not re-inventing the wheel when I say that they’re different from standard albums, and not just because of running time. Albums are sprawling works, monoliths built on months of preparation, multiple track orders, myriad discarded songs (both half-formed and full of life) and sleepless nights. By contrast, most songs, especially singles, seem to emerge from the ether like Athena from Zeus’ skull. They spring to life, near-fully formed, stubbornly demanding their place in this world. Albums are meant to be carefully dissected and examined from every possible angle; a good single will just wash right over you.
As this is the first time I’ve ever had the pleasure of reviewing a single instead of an album, I thought I would shake up my methodology just a bit. Instead of listening to the tracks endlessly, instead of dissecting each and every chord, drumbeat and melody for their emotional expression, instead of listening to the entire oeuvre of the band’s work, and instead of finding every scrap piece of self-mythology published by the band in some vain attempt to contextualize my work, I figured I’d just dive in. My hope for this little experiment was to replicate the waning experience of hearing a song for the first time on the radio, praying all the while that the DJ will tell you anything related to the ephemeral piece of art blooming from the car radio static. So I downloaded the seven inch sent to me, put on my good headphones, took the dog for a walk, and formed my opinions based on nothing but the music.
“Change Of Heart,” the ostensible A-side on TOPS’ new seven-inch is not your typical single. It carries all the markers of a classic A-side. It’s a mid tempo, major key number that feels both energetic and carefully controlled, like helium gradually released from a balloon. As with all good singles, it is tough to discern where the hook lies, because every melody in the song seems to be effortlessly crafted for maximum “ear worm” effectiveness. It features a bright melodic hook, played by what sounds like a keyboard’s steel drum preset, which wraps the song in an ebullient joy that demonstrates to the listener that the track was as fun to make as it is to hear. Still, something deeper is going on in this song. Sure, the lyrics refer to the common subject matter of a summer single: the rapturous possibility of new love. But where most pop singles seem destined to relate the same boy-meets-girl story, TOPS are more interested in the uncertainty that lies in the moment before a new romance is admitted to by either party. The lyrical lynch pin lies within the repeated question of the chorus, “wasting, wasting a chance you’re chasing/why are you so afraid to face it?” and that’s exactly what sets this song apart. The unease that such a question implies is effectively matched by the orchestration of the song. The narrator has no idea what will become of his frail, nascent friendship with the girl he has grown to love. He “could talk to her about anything,” but that was in the past. Now he stands on a precipice of uncertainty. The synths and guitars sparkle brightly to match the possibility of hope, but the listener will notice how each note seems to echo and die once it’s played, almost like a question still caught behind your teeth. The vocals are breezy and catchy but they’re mixed low and wrapped in reverb, acting as a Greek chorus of uncertainty forever echoing in the narrator’s head, begging the question of why he can’t act. A contemplative track masquerading as easy ear candy, “Change of Heart,” is the best kind of summer single, one you can fall in love with long into the winter.
Casting off the tradition A-side single/B-side experiment tradition of the seven inch, “Sleepwalker” is a more immediately open work than its predecessor. Where “Change Of Heart” may have sounded effervescent and carefree, it is “Sleepwalker” that actually comes from a place of personal tranquility. No longer do instruments lock step in an exuberant mid-tempo strut. Now, guitars are given room to breathe, bass lines are sparse and light, and the easy vocal line is mixed clearly and placed intimately in the center of the mix. “Sleepwalker” is the exhale that “Change Of Heart” so desperately seemed to need. Its vocal line appears abruptly but not shockingly so, moving listlessly through the tale of life and spilling into night-time musing like dreams creeping into the twilight of sleep. The guitar line is beautiful in its meandering elliptical pattern. The vocal track is mellifluous and uncluttered, the chorus separated from the verse by the entrance of a warm male double. And then, just as we find ourselves falling into the lullaby timbre of the brushed snare pattern, the song ends and we’re brought back to our waking life, left to ponder the questions left unanswered and the words which will carry us back into sleep.
Note: I may have known next to nothing about TOPS before listening to the seven inch, but you should check out this awesome Montreal synth pop band for yourself. You can find their well-received 2012 album Tender Opposites on their bandcamp (tops.bandcamp.com), as well as this new seven inch, a herald of what’s to come for this promising indie rock band.