Music Reviews
Prom King

Skylar Spence Prom King

(Carpark) Buy it from Insound Rating - 6/10

The Weeknd aside, 2015 hasn’t been a great year for ‘80s music. At a time where indie music seems to be feeding off the influence of the decade’s pop music more than ever, this year has seen the rise of a growing number of ‘70s singer-songwriter revivalists, a departure in sound from the creator of one of the greatest ‘80s-inspired albums of recent years, and general silence from the likes of Blood Orange and Sky Ferreira (I’m still holding out hope that the new Chromatics album is coming this year). Prom King, the new album from Skylar Spence, seeks to fill that void with all the youthful exuberance and bouncy sheen of the music that inspired it, shot through with a disco and contemporary dance influence that distinguishes it from the more conventional synth-pop artists currently crowding the indie market.

The stage name Skylar Spence was taken on by Ryan DeRobertis, formerly known as Saint Pepsi, under pressure from both the eponymous corporation and his record label. He seems to have taken the name change as something more than a superficial shift, as Prom King finds him reflecting on youth, his relationship to pop music, and how the two seem to be intertwined. The eminently review-ready first lines of the album, “I was working / tried my hardest / slowed some music down and called myself an artist” seem to jokingly dismiss his work under his former moniker. Saint Pepsi’s SoundCloud page proclaims him(self?) “The King of Vaporwave,” an allegedly real genre related to the also allegedly real genre of chillwave built on warped pop sampling and satires of consumer culture. Vaporwave is kind of like the new generation of filmmakers influenced by Quentin Tarantino- they’re not necessarily calling back directly to the pop music of the past, they’re responding to it through the lens of newer artists who were inspired by it.

The sound of his former work isn’t far off from the one he’s crafted here- thick basslines, funky guitars and glistening synths- but it only appears in the same style about half the time. This is the weaker half of the album, consisting of mostly instrumental, largely sample-based swirls of sound that evoke classic R&B and soul along with the rest of the album’s dance-pop origins. They’re often impressive from a production standpoint, but they mostly fail to make a memorable impression, and often seem too much like relics from a movement that died a couple years ago and already feels dated.

Where Prom King truly shows DeRobertis’s promise is in the more straightforward pop songs, which seem like melting pots with Chic, Thriller and Disclosure represented in equal measure, all delivered with total sincerity and an infectious sugar-rush immediacy. Some of these, like the obvious standout Fiona Coyne, rank among the best pop songs of the year, and the utter confidence with which DeRobertis has crafted them suggest even better things to come. And while the split in quality between this material and the instrumentals isn’t strict (Ridiculous! and Bounce is Back are both solid entries from the latter, while the title track is one of the weaker cuts on the album), it’s hard not to see these songs as showing his promise and progress under his new moniker, while the others still seem to have one foot in the tiresome irony of the “vaporwave” that defined his past.

Speaking of the past, Prom King is a record largely defined by its relationship to music and emotions that exist in memories, its insistence on constantly coming off as young in spirit here played as an effort to relive the glory of youth. The character DeRobertis takes here wants to fit in with the kids, but his idea of how to do that is by playing ‘80s music. The bad news is that the album doesn’t really take advantage of this fertile material in terms of emotional resonance or nuance, apart from the excellent I Can’t Be Your Superman. Whereas James Murphy used to find some impossible balance between in-the-moment fun and thoughtful reflection with LCD Soundsystem, Prom King focuses too much on fleeting pleasures to make its way into your psyche. It wants to be a thoughtful commentary on the futility of nostalgia, but it indulges in that nostalgia too much, from DeRobertis’ boyish voice to the attention-grabbing title, to be very convincing. That doesn’t mean Prom King is a bad album- it’s a frequently gorgeous, consistently fun summer album that came a few months too late, and it’s a fantastic showcase for DeRobertis as a producer. But it does mean that it’s not likely to have the depth of meaning to listeners that so many records about the lost promise of youth have before.