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Review: Ben Hazlewood's 'Bloodline' is Inspired and Should Please Fans of Contemporary Pop

by Kevin Schattenkirk
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jul 3, 2020
Review: Ben Hazlewood's 'Bloodline' is Inspired and Should Please Fans of Contemporary Pop

New Zealander Ben Hazlewood recently released his debut album "Bloodline." The Wellington native is now based in Melbourne, Australia, by way of London, England where he fronted a rock band. However, there is no rock to be found here. "Bloodline" is pop through and through, with synths and loops providing the backdrop for Hazlewood's vocals. Anthemic songs abound, which suits the 2012 finalist of "The Voice Australia." Since then, the artist has released several singles and EPs that eventually led to this album.

As promo materials and press around "Bloodline" highlight, Huffington Post lauded Hazlewood for "expressing his authentic self through his music." "Authentic" is a dubious word, especially when bandied about to delineate purity in terms of artistry and identity. What is authenticity, exactly? And what does that notion signal here? The suggestion of sincerity is always problematized by the performative.

First, the music decidedly follows contemporary pop form, electronic-based and with dynamic contrasts that, for all intents and purposes, spotlight anthemic melodies and heightened emotions. The structures generally entail verses in the lower voice and bridges that work in falsetto and melisma and lead to full-throated, upper register choruses. This form showcases Hazlewood's powerful tenor. By design, bangers such as "Give Me Something" and "Heartbeat," or ballads like "Lying" and "The Way You Do," could certainly rouse audience ovations on "The Voice" and other televised talent shows when rendered with a rivetingly proficient performance. But is this "authentic"? And, if so, to what — style or substance?

The ubiquity of this particular pop sound, paired with lyrics that lean more toward the universal, might be "authentic" in its production. There is something to be said for music that speaks to common emotions in basic terms. But such an approach sacrifices the expressive impact of unique experience, which often demands more vulnerability of the artist and can poses more challenges to the listener. For instance, halfway through the album comes "Revelry," a dark mid-tempo number in which Hazlewood throws a captivatingly stark lyrical wrench in the works, via the song's chorus, about the dangers of escapism and excess: "Oh lord, I feel like I'm losing my mind; joining in the revelry, I'm going to break this time; down through the bottle, head in the snow; nothing holding me back when I let go." Hazlewood's rhetorical usage of "snow" here recalls the late David Bowie's apocalyptic 1974 masterpiece "Diamond Dogs," an album riddled with references to his cocaine use. But instead of digging deeper, Hazlewood's default is the universal.

To be fair, there are no "moon" and "June" couplets here. No lyric ever descends into a Diane Warren/Michael Bolton-esque one-size-fits-all form. But the question of expressive authenticity is important because Hazlewood dispenses with gender-specific pronouns, electing instead to address his subject directly as "you." Thus, his lyrics allow listeners of all stripes to relate to these songs on their own terms. But this approach underestimates the potential for creating even deeper connections with an audience through more forthright explorations of his experience as a gay man. So the question of "authenticity" here is really dependent on what we're looking for as listeners: Sincerity in unflinching articulations that compel audiences to find verisimilitude, or effortless connection to the artist through their voicing of common feelings. "Bloodline" decidedly skews toward the latter.

Still, Hazlewood's debut album is inspired, and should please fans of contemporary pop. His voice is supple, and the songs' melodies showcase his range. And it's not difficult at all to imagine hearing these songs on the dance floor... when it's safe for clubs to re-open, that is. If Hazlewood's influences (as he's said) include David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, artists who forged indelible identities — and without laying claim to authenticity — then "Bloodline" presents an opportunity for the artist to explore much bolder writing in the future.

by Ben Hazlewood
$8.99 (digital download at iTunes/Apple Music)
And streaming on Spotify
Official website: http://www.benhazlewood.com

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.

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