The band TOPS is the quintessential indie pop band, complete with breathy vocals, soft production and fake-deep lyrics. Channeling nostalgia and teenage “wisdom,” they never fail to make you long for being young and free and sad and moody. With their new album “I Feel Alive,” released on April 3, this remains true as always, with pained hints at something more.
“I Feel Alive” brims with emotion. The choruses on tracks like opener “Direct Sunlight” and lead single “I Feel Alive” soar in a way that feels so satisfying. Listening to the latter, you get a sense that the song was destined almost to resolve in that way, especially with the backing vocals from other band members giving depth and unity. But there’s a certain tongue-in-cheekedness to this satisfaction. Yes, lead singer Jane Penny says she feels alive looking in your eyes, but it’s preceded by lines like “Conversation that I did not like/Faces in the street I wish I didn’t recognize.” It’s hard to fully enjoy the elation, as if there’s something holding us back.
This sense is further realized in songs like “Colder and Closer” and “Witching Hour.” Echoing vocals tell us about being gripped by emptiness and regret. The moving undercurrent of the drums is still there, as are the vintage fluffy synthesizers, but there is a certain hauntedness now. These tracks are sad, but in an artsy, romanticized way that can feel both intimate and devoid of warmth.
“Drowning in Paradise” heats it up with some of the best sounds on the album. It’s a love song, the only one on the album that comes with no holding back. From the drip-dropping plinks at the beginning to the Fleetwood Mac chorus to the dog barks, it feels primal, not in a masculine chest-beating way but in a softer, more feminine sense. It’s sexy and pure and naive, climaxing in a guitar mini-solo and French spoken word segment. That sort of primal sensuality continues on tracks like “OK Fine Whatever,” which pulses in every instrument.
On “Looking to Remember,” we get the synthesis of all these emotions, both in production and in lyrics. Although TOPS leans heavy on the ‘70s and ‘90s influence, you wouldn’t mistake them for an older band at all here. There are so many modern progressions turned retro here, leaving the listener looking to remember where they heard it from. More flute and bass give off the sense of vulnerability, the kind that is needed to say things like “Haven’t been seeing much of you around” or “Tell me who you really see there.”
“Too Much” closes the album as if it’s the end of prom night, dreamlike and quiet. The refrain of “Too Much” comes from a different place than the rest of the lyrics, as if it’s your internal reaction to the world around you. “Sometimes I wish I’d fall for love/I don’t want anyone,” Penny sings, clearly overwhelmed by the romances she finds herself in. Much like the whole album, this song is about holding back when you don’t want to, finding yourself too deep in the messiness of your mind. TOPS shows they have trouble living in the moment, both musically and lyrically.
“I Feel Alive” discusses its content so openly and plainly, forgoing any metaphor or complexity. It’s aware of the lameness of the words and sounds it puts out and yet dives headfirst into them anyway. TOPS has always been emblematic of the naivety of youth, but never before have they felt quite as much like they are in on the joke, too. This is especially clear on “Ballads and Sad Movies,” which is a ballad about how ballads and sad movies aren’t enough to really encapsulate actual sadness.
And really, that’s what’s so beautiful about it all. The faux-poetry and teenage angst of “I Feel Alive” feels like it is done with intention, as if the members of the band grew up, saw the doldrums of complex thought, and then decided to reject that in favor of the pure misguided youthfulness. There are hints of hurt and pain throughout, implied stories of mental illness and toxic relationships, but that doesn’t stop TOPS from living fully and openly through it all.
However, this illuminates the limits of “I Feel Alive.” When Penny whines about her lover “thinking about somebody else,” you want to shake her to wake her up. When she tells a story about how “A silhouette of a stranger said/When lying in bed/You’re on your own now,” you can’t help but roll your eyes a little at the childishness. You have a sense that the problems described are simple and easily solved, just as the music seems like a solved formula. At its best, “I Feel Alive” is an ode to teenagedom and purity. At its worst, it’s basic indie pop.
Call me basic, but I can’t help but love it. I love the existential FOMO it makes me feel, longing to have just another day as a teenager. I love the easy listening, the slick guitars and soft singing. I love the universal nostalgia it evokes in the synthesizers and drums.
TOPS is the kind of band that makes you want to write bad poetry and drive late at night to hang out with friends in the parking lot of a decaying shopping plaza. It’s the kind of band to make you wistful and reverent of a teenaged experience you didn’t have, one that doesn’t even exist. TOPS simultaneously exists in our reality and in a cheesy coming-of-age movie that has a cult following of 20-something women. And I’m here to get lost in every moment with them.
Peter Fenteany is the associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.