Album Review: Clean Bandit – What Is Love? (track by track)

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Clean Bandit kicked off their long string of hit singles in the Spring of 2016, leading up to the release of their sophomore album What Is Love?. It has been one of the longest album campaigns in recent pop history, that saw the UK electronic music formation collaborate with some of the biggest stars of the planet, gaining some of their biggest hits yet. On What Is Love they collaborate with different artists on every single track. A Bit of Pop Music guides you through it with a track by track review.

01. Symphony (feat. Zara Larsson)
‘Symphony’ with Zara Larsson was released as the third single of the project and is a good way to open the album, as it is sonically close to Clean Bandit’s hits with Jess Glynne from their previous album. The tune with an incredibly catchy chorus and flawless vocal performance by Larsson became a massive international hit and is easily one of the best on the record.

02. Baby (feat. Marina & Luis Fonsi)
‘Baby’ is the current single and has not yet reached the levels of success of its predecessors. The track is still climbing, but we might have to conclude that the fabulous Marina’s flopping power is bigger than Clean Bandit’s star power. ‘Baby’ has all the makings of a hit, although it is neither Marina’s nor Clean Bandit’s best work. The flamenco flavoured pop track would have worked better in summer, but I sure thought that chorus would get people dancing any time of year.

03. Solo (feat. Demi Lovato)
Out of all the singles released, ‘Solo’ was probably the most forward thinking and edgy. The chorus basically consists of bonkers vocal effects. We never heard Demi Lovato like that before, but she sure pulls off the attitude. The production is ace and the effects on the vocals make the track even more catchy and memorable!

04. Rockabye (feat. Anne-Marie & Sean Paul)
Although ‘Rockabye’ was the second single released from the project, it became the one that defined it. It was the band’s biggest hit and exceeded all expectations in terms of chart success. The track properly launched Anne-Marie as a pop star as well. The relatable lyrics about a single mom, the insane hooks, Sean Paul’s additions; the combination of this all made ‘Rockabye’ the track that changed Clean Bandit’s career.

05. Mama (feat. Ellie Goulding)
‘Mama’ is the first new track we encounter in the tracklist and features British pop star Ellie Goulding. On first listen I thought to myself: this is way too simple and one dimensional and both Ellie and Clean Bandit are capable of so much more. I have to admit though that after a few listens, the extreme catchiness of the repetitions in the chorus are completely taking me over. It is Clean Bandit by the numbers, but the hook is one of the strongest on the whole record. Hit single material right here.

06. Should’ve Known Better (feat. Anne-Marie)
The second Anne-Marie collaboration sound exactly like what you would expect a collaboration of the two artists without Sean Paul to do. It is all very contemporary and catchy, but the post-chorus drop is a bit of a let down and the song never takes off like the chorus of ‘Rockabye’ managed to do. Decent track, but not a highlight in either artist’s discography.

07. Out At Night (feat. KYLE & Big Boi)
‘Out At Night’ was released as a promo single earlier this week. The track featuring vocals by KYLE and a rap by Big Boi is all about this girl that does not show herself during the day, but only comes out at night. It is a bop and a half! The chorus is slightly repetitive, but the catchiness saves it from becoming boring. On paper I did not expect this to be even close to my favourite songs of the album, but the pulsing beats and bouncy synths in the post chorus have me hooked!

08. Last Goodbye (feat. Tove Styrke & Stefflon Don)
Swedish pop artist Tove Styrke and British rapper Stefflon Don provide vocals on the laidback, reggae inspired tune ‘Last Goodbye’. The lyrics are about spending one last night with your lover after both parties know the relationship is coming to an end. Stefflon Don’s rap verses are fiery and Tove provides the catchy hooks, like she always does. Not necessarily single material, but definitely a worthy album track!

09. We Were Just Kids (feat. Craig David & Kirsten Joy)
Early noughties R&B legend Craig David appears on the track ‘We Were Just Kids’, together with Kirsten Joy, one of the singers that tours with Clean Bandit to perform vocals on a bunch of the band’s tracks. Now she has her own song too! ‘We Were Just Kids’ is a cute little bop that looks back on a youth love affair. It carries the signature Clean Bandit sound, but at the same time has nothing to offer that ‘Rockabye’ did not already do better.

10. Nowhere (feat. Rita Ora & KYLE)
Rita Ora is one of the biggest stars in the line up of the album, but she did not end up with one of the most memorable tunes on the tracklist. ‘Nowhere’ is a pleasant little synth pop tune that floats by without making much of an impression… until that blatantly obvious, but oh so satisfying key change before the last chorus hits! It can’t take away from the fact that the hooks are somewhat lacking, but at least there is a reason to return to this track!

11. I Miss You (feat. Julia Michaels)
Out of all the hit singles of this album, ‘I Miss You’ featuring Julia Michaels took the longest to reach its chart peak. The public needed to get used to the more laidback and delicate approach of the tune, but those soaring melodies found their way to radio and a whole lot of streaming playlists in the end. Julia Michaels’ delivery is heavenly and so is the tune itself!

12. In Us I Believe (feat. Alma)
Upcoming pop star Alma has worked with a long list of other pop stars including Tove Lo and Charli XCX and Clean Bandit are next. There is enough room here for Alma to show off her unique raspy tone of voice. She performs the main hook over piano with some help from a backing vocal choir while Clean Bandit experiments away in the middle-eight. Although I am not a fan of the ‘eya eya’ chants in the post chorus, the last one is quite the moment with all the added production layers!

13. 24 Hours (feat. Yasmin Green)
Yasmin Green, just like Kirsten Joy, provides live vocals during Clean Bandit concerts. She also gets her own track on What Is Love? and quite a great one too. The midtempo tune is all about the moment you meet someone you fall head over heels in love with. Yasmin’s warm and soulful vocals form a contrast to the high pitched production. A thoroughly enjoyable listen!

14. Playboy Style (feat. Charli XCX & Bhad Bhabie)
‘Playboy Style’ featuring UK pop star Charli XCX and ‘cash me outside’ rapper Bhad Bhabie has a reggae vibe going on and the laidback instrumentals form a sharp contrast with both Charli’s as well as Bhad Bhabie’s energetic vocal delivery. The horns towards the end add another layer of catchiness. As if ‘Playboy Style’ really needed more of those!

15. Beautiful (feat. DaVido & Love Ssega)
‘Beautiful’ is a catchy bop for sure, but also one of the tunes that makes me wonder what is actually left of Clean Bandit’s sound on some of the tracks. Sure, we hear their signature strings somewhere in the background of this bouncy dance tune, performed by Nigerian singer Davido and Brith-Ugandan performer Love Ssega, but is that enough of an actual Clean Bandit stamp to put it on their own album?

16. Tears (feat. Louisa)
‘Tears’ featuring X Factor UK winner Louisa Johnson was the first single back in June 2016. It became a decent success in the UK, but paled in comparison to the hits Clean Bandit had after this tune. This does not take away from the fact that ‘Tears’ is still a bop! The disco vibe is delicious and still breathes a contemporary take on ‘I Will Survive’. Louisa’s belting is to die for and I would have loved to hear more of these outgoing vocal moments on the album.

After hearing all sixteen tracks of Clean Bandit’s sophomore album, two conclusions can be made. First of all it is undeniable that they delivered the bops throughout. The songwriting is strong, the productions mostly impeccable and there is hooks in all the right places. In comparison to their debut however, the experimental character is almost completely gone. Clean Bandit serves contemporary pop, but sometimes loses what makes them unique in today’s pop landscape. They get swallowed by the sound of their collaborators or lose their own artistry while chasing hits too eagerly. Clean Bandit serves the bops, but should take a good look at theirselves to stay true to their identity as artists with their next project.

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