Middlebrow pop music is a crowded field in 2015, and New York City producer-singer duo MS MR’s latest effort, How Does It Feel (note the conspicuous lack of interrogative punctuation, which I’ll come back to), only contributes to this growing crop. Indeed, Lizzy Plapinger and Max Hershenow’s sophomore album sounds less confident and more cookie cutter than their 2013 debut. Whereas, Secondhand Rapture benefitted from a macabre motif and a few risks sprinkled throughout (remember that incursion into country music on “Head Is Not My Home”?), HDIF operates in a comfortable space that often renders it sterile. This is an album that tells but doesn’t show, playing in the background without caring whether or not you’ve tuned out yet, elevator music with a quicker pulse, inoffensive, midtempo pablum.
First single, “Painted” is the requisite initial injection of adrenaline. It’s also MS MR at almost full capacity: pounding house piano and frenetic vocal loop capped off with Plapinger’s undistinguished lyricism. From there, it’s mostly an eleven-song slide to the finish line. There are some short-lived highs on the way down, however. “Criminals” actually makes an effective appeal to pathos by allowing Plapinger to slow down, show off, and extend her lyrics on the bridge long enough to let some emotion seep out of them. The title track is a rah-rah affair replete with shouts that hits the mark befitting its special designation. That’s about the extent of the highlights, though. Elsewhere, Plapinger and Hershenow flounder with several downtempo snoozers that eliminate any momentum they might have built up in previous tracks (“Tunnels,” “Cruel”). At other points, songs like “Reckless” fail to get off the ground in spite of the obvious kineticism being poured into them. Secondhand Rapture was inconsistent and uneven at points, but it also drew some power from its unpredictability. Its successor is twelve straight tracks of mostly the same thing: worn pop clichés. This dullness plagues the album from start to finish despite Plapinger’s best attempts at shouting through the monotony.
It’s somewhat ironic and alarming that Plapinger, co-founder and curator of innovative, boutique label Neon Gold (which has previously had acts like Charli XCX, Tove Lo and Ellie Goulding on its roster), is so unable to bring that brio into her own musical endeavors. In spite of being surrounded by a veritable cornucopia of alternative-skewing pop, Plapinger inhabits a generic level of performance. There’s no dark undercurrent or obsession with the morbid anymore (indeed, that was so 2013), but without that creepy edge, MS MR get lost in a crowded arena with much more compelling characters, and HDIF elapses smoothly and forgettably. If the title had included a question mark, perhaps the answer might have been a question itself: “Was I supposed to feel something?”
How Does It Feel is out now.