The Midnight are supremely talented at building entire worlds on a bedrock of universal themes and eminently catchy hooks.
The first time this was wholly realized was the 2018 album Kids, which seemed to conjure memories of childhood innocence amid the dissolution of the American Dream in the 1980s. On new album Monsters (Counter Records) — released nearly six years to the day from their debut LP Days of Thunder — the duo of Tim McEwan and Tyler Lyle study the fiery extremes of adolescence through a lens of wistfulness for the early 90s. The result is an extraordinary body of songs and instrumental segments that form a true, full-album experience. With that in mind, Monsters is best heard as a whole.
It’s not a stretch to refer to Monsters as The Midnight’s Pet Sounds.
From the moment Monsters kicks off with the familiar squawk of a dial-up modem, we’re brought into the world of online services, simple website designs, and dilemmas both big and small. “America Online,” a single from 2019, is the first full song following the intro. Its Pure Moods-style new age vibe pulsates with a hypnotic catchiness in a dark, monitor-lit bedroom at 3 a.m.
The online services of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and especially the World Wide Web later on, promised a global interconnectedness that would change humanity forever. However, it wasn’t long before it all failed to live up to the promise of that utopian intent. Instead, the Internet has largely connected us on superficial levels at best, or degraded society at worst. With the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, the internet has become our main way to connect with each other even as states and countries start to “open up” again. When Lyle’s queries about acceptance and love on “America Online” come into play through some disembodied sound effects, it’s a question of both concern and curiosity that he ultimately answers: “We are all one beating heart.” Utopia is possible, perhaps!
Zooming in on the teenage experience I had online in the ‘90s, I’ll just say that the unmeasured moods of adolescence didn’t completely dissolve even as I went down the information rabbit holes that existed long before Wikipedia. Not sure it was a utopia. On AOL Instant Messenger friendships and even romances would form, because it was easier to deal with crushing rejection online with a username like “IWhoAmUndercover” than it was in person. When you’re a teenager, everything feels like high stakes, even if it isn’t. Much of rock history centers on this concept, but The Midnight bring the idea to the nostalgia-minded, contemporary-pop realm with much depth and breadth. It’s not a stretch to refer to Monsters as The Midnight’s Pet Sounds.
The jubilant ’80s Phil Collins vibes of “Dance With Somebody” bring you to the high-school dance floor, where merely asking someone to dance, and actually dancing with them if they say “yes,” is like solving world peace. This is an especially potent message for those who were like I was my first couple years of high school: A wallflower cynical about the idea of just having a little fun every now and then. (“Look at those suckers smiling and dancing!”) The Hughesian pink-hued “Prom Night” ups the stakes even more: “Hold her hand,” Lyle sings, “We’ll never pass this way again.” An overflow of beautiful synths, some glimmering guitars, and a purposeful drum machine reinforce the urgency. If you don’t dance now, you never will. It’s now or NEVER. The energy required for this much urgency is immense. The festival-ready “Fire in the Sky” has this ferocious energy that only teens have — it practically summons the Four Horsemen with its intensity.
The lo-fi hip-hop-tinged and crystalline “Seventeen,” one of my favorite songs on the album, seems to be a brief flash-forward to those teens as adults. Maybe they have adolescents of their own and they’re looking back at what seems to them to be easier times. The haze of memory is a great friend to nostalgia, after all. The searing guitar solo is like a chariot of reminiscence, carrying people to a place where the “big decisions” of who to ask to prom retrospectively seem minuscule. Funny how the past always seems simpler, regardless of your age.
A standout artistic choice on Monsters that sets it apart from previous releases from The Midnight is the influence of 90s acts like Deep Forest and Enigma. “America Online” was merely a teaser into this inclination.
The laidback “Dream Away,” another of my favorite cuts on the record, embodies a modern-but-nostalgic New Age vibe. One notable element is a pitched-down sample of an Indonesian woman singing and another is the ambient murmurs of the rain forest. Atop are a cadre of mallet stabs and Lyle’s reassurances that no matter how lost you feel, there’s a community looking for you. There are three instrumental passages situated throughout the album that carry on this atmosphere.
The first is “The Search for Ecco,” which follows “Dream Away.” It works like an epilogue to the latter. It’s a blissed-out, ocean-gaze number akin to the work of Seahawks, another favorite duo of Vehlinggo. It works as a great transition between “Dream Away” and “Prom Night.”
Another cut in the New Age vein is “Helvetica,” which takes the natural-world elements of “Dream” and “Ecco” and pairs them with some delayed, pitch-shifted synths and house-inflected drums to create the feeling of very late-night YouTube rabbit holes into obscure electronic music. It also serves as a transition point between what’s before it — the absolute banger title cut featuring a duet with Lelia Broussard of The Midnight affiliates Jupiter Winter — and what comes after — the subdued and beautifully reflective “Brooklyn.”
“City Dreams (interlude)” incorporates parts of “Seventeen” and takes it down a K-hole of vaporwave-induced transcendence. It’s a hypnotic number. If you put it on repeat, the endless loops help foster creativity for your writing or artistic projects. Even if you don’t put it on repeat and instead let it flow naturally, the New Age tapestry has much to value. Like the other instrumentals above, it also creates a great transition to album closer “Last Train” from the classic sounds of “Deep Blue” and the haunting “Night Skies.”
“Last Train” creates a perfect circle for the record — Lyle again declares that we’re all one beating heart. But by this point the themes and sentiments are mature and McEwan and Lyle have clearly set the stage for the third album in the Kids trilogy.
Now that The Midnight have contemplated the various monsters that menace developing adolescent brains — adult emotions in a kid’s body — they’re ready to dive into discussions of our contemporary experience. Your 20s, 30s, and beyond have even grander decisions that carry sometimes everlasting consequences that we wear on our backs like a sack of bricks; but they’re also a period of great joy and personal discovery. And, naturally, some of that will still be happening online — utopia or not.
McEwan and Lyle are constantly refining synthwave with their gifted songwriting and ambitious sonic exploration such that they’re not really a synthwave act anymore. Their genre is merely The Midnight.
Are you ready for what’s next? I sure am.
Monsters is available now via Counter Records, a sublabel of the legendary Ninja Tune. You can buy various manifestations of it and merchandise on Bandcamp and other standard avenues.
Monsters artwork by Aaron Campbell.
Don’t forget to listen to “Sometimes She Smiles,” the exclusive single The Midnight released last November on Vehlinggo Presents: 5 Years. Stream it or buy it here and read the in-depth liner notes.