Since 2016’s Endless Summer, release cycles for EPs and album from The Midnight follow a similar narrative. The duo of Tim McEwan and Tyler Lyle introduce a new album that sounds invariably like them, but nevertheless showcases a changing compositional philosophy that distinctively demonstrates their insistence never to rest on their laurels. The response from the crowd is often some degree of excitement, but also the inevitable consternation from the squeaky wheels who want the 20th iteration of gems “Sunset” or “Jason.” Thankfully, the band doesn’t give into this. (I’m pretty sure it’s not in their DNA.)
Kids, released in 2018, had no saxophone parts. Monsters, from 2020, featured the following: instrumental passages that would fit in well on the 100% Electronica vaporwave label; a song entitled “Dream Away” that evoked the Pure Moods compilation; and a few cuts laced with elements of big-tent, mainstream pop. You get the idea. They’re not messing around here.
On their new album, Heroes — out Friday, Sept. 9, via Ninja Tune’s Counter Records imprint — the pair (and friends) change it all up again. Perhaps the most striking difference shows up in the form of the arena-ready songs that recall Def Leppard’s and The Cars’ work with producer Robert “Mutt” Lange in the 1980s. Given that touring pals Jupiter Winter (bassist/vocalist Lelia Broussard and guitarist Royce Whittaker) are essentially part of The Midnight now, and worked heavily on this album, what we get is the closest representation of their live show on a studio album to-date. We get something else, too, though.
That familiar embrace-versus-consternation dynamic has accompanied the release of giant-sounding advance singles such as “Change Your Heart or Die,” “Brooklyn. Friday. Love,” and “Avalanche.” However, there’s a way of viewing the band that avoids that tired debate and opens the door for just enjoying the experience of their music. The best way to approach The Midnight has always been to view them as a band that makes music in various genres, rather than as a band weighed down by a focus on a single genre. This sounds simplistic, but it’s true. It’s true for so many acts, really. The Smashing Pumpkins, New Order, Prince, and hell, even The Cars, never stuck to one template. Why should The Midnight? Like those acts, the genres revolve in and around The Midnight and not the other way around. It’s one of the reasons I dig them so much.
Popular live number “Change Your Heart or Die” is one of the prime examples of the band blending McEwan’s familiar production techniques and composition with ’80s Mutt vibes. It’s got big drums and big and searing guitars, and Lyle’s vocals are just massive. ‘Neath that are an array of world-building synths. The extravagantly upbeat “Brooklyn. Friday. Love.” and the kinetic title song are cut from the same cloth. Relatedly, the delectable “Heartbeat” is The Midnight tapping into the height of Hagar-era Van Halen.
It’s not all arena-rock statements, though. “A Place of Her Own” counts among the best of The Midnight’s mid-tempo ballads — gorgeous synthscapes, jangly guitars, memorable hooks, and Lyle’s evocative storytelling. The deeply meaningful “Heart Worth Breaking” comes off as a rock-oriented, spiritual sequel to one of The Midnight’s best-known cuts, “Lost Boy.” The penultimate track, “Photograph,” is a molasses-paced cathedral-occupying meditation laced with delicious melancholy.
Another band might have kicked off Heroes with “Change Your Heart or Die,” rather than place it ninth in the 13-track lineup. It does serve pretty well as a definitive statement of the vision of the album. However, the song they chose to open the record — the slow-burning epic “Golden Gate” — ends up succeeding to that effect, too. You get a narrative with fully-formed characters and elaborate scene-setting. McEwan’s familiar but evolving synth palette and muted drum machine abound before they all give way to a kaiju-sized onslaught of drum fills, a wall of synthesizers, and Lyle’s rich tapestry of geography-checking lyrics that all slowly disappear into the void. I’m realizing as I write this that these qualities also make the cut a good candidate to close the album, but there’s a reason they’re in this game and I’m just writing about it.
The actual conclusion, “Energy Never Dies, It Just Transforms,” starts off like a cross between the contemplation of Brian Eno, the spectral guitar coloration of The Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha, and the organic-sounding electronics inherent in other parts of the Ninja Tune lineup, like Bonobo or Tycho. The piano part moves the song along evocatively as if McEwan is scoring a Golden Globe-winning drama. But then just-like-that the music dies and we’re left with the sound of a constant but soothing thunderstorm.
The song marks a fitting end to a narrative-linked trilogy that began with the youthful (but reticent) energy of Kids and continued with the complex emotion of Monsters. But in some ways it’s not really the end, because ultimately you’re left wanting to start the whole record again. It’s too big and populated, and nuanced, to digest in one listening session.
There are a lot of strained, click-bait-driven hot takes and reactive hand-wringing in the synthwave community over whether the genre is dead after more than 15 years. But if this album is any indication, it’s not dead and probably never will die — not even in the hands of a multi-genre band like The Midnight. It’s just transforming. I can’t wait to see where this energy takes The Midnight in the years to come.
As mentioned above, you can find Heroes in physical (CD, cassette, and vinyl) and digital forms via Counter Records. I prefer to buy stuff from them via Bandcamp, but they also sell records and more on their rather fan-friendly website. (That site also has information on fall tour dates and tickets.)
Full disclosure: Vehlinggo has released a song by The Midnight. You can find “Sometimes She Smiles” exclusively on the Vehlinggo Presents: 5 Years compilation.