Sweater weather has arrived, but this year, The Neighbourhood isn’t partaking. Instead, frontman Jesse Rutherford and his band have shed their identities, donning new personas for their latest LP, a futuristic concept album called Chip Chrome & The Mono-Tones. It’s the band’s most colorful release thus far in both sound and visuals, a major step up from 2018’s massively bland Hard To Imagine The Neighbourhood Ever Changing. Rutherford has become the fictional character Chip Chrome, a silver alien rockstar; his bandmates transformed into faceless background silhouettes. They’ve changed alright, in many ways for the better, though the actual transformation is not quite as radical as some might have hoped.
The case for Chip Chrome starts off convincing. The opening instrumental beams down into “Pretty Boy,” a ballad featuring a ghostly Thundercat-like falsetto that augments Rutherford’s lucid vocals. Touches of strings and mellotron add an atmosphere of dread around the song’s skeletal bass groove as he zeroes in on his one love amid the global collapse, crooning, “And if it’s all over/ I’m taking this moment, ooh, with me.” It’s not original, but the alluring performance makes the existential romance believable.
More exciting is that the sonic palette from the band is far from monotonous. Gone is the drab, overly self-serious sound of previous Neighbourhood releases. It’s instead replaced with brighter arrangements that suggest that the band has finally decided to let loose and start having a bit of fun. “Lost in Translation” samples the The Manhattans’ “Wish That You Were Mine” before busting out into full-blown dance pop with driving percussion that switches in and out of a half-time rhythm.
The guitars on “Devil’s Advocate” have just enough fuzz to counter the chorus’ light, noncommittal vocals, pushing the song just past moody pop and on its way into menacing rock ‘n’ roll territory. “Silver Lining” bears a spiritual resemblance to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” trading in that song’s devastating feelings of painful acceptance for calm optimism over genuinely pretty keyboard flourishes.
But there are some obvious misses. “BooHoo” is the second worst song written this year about life with a romantic partner who also happens to be a celebrity, complete with similar high production pop trap beats and empty references to the opulent lifestyle. It sticks out in the track list like a sore thumb, like catching Rutherford — out of character — doing an embarrassing dance in the dressing room mid-costume change. “Hell or High Water” is a weak stab at a country folk number that ends up sounding more like a Conway Twitty imitation from Spongebob’s Bikini Bottom rather than the space cowboy music it was intended to be.
Then there’s the persona itself: frankly, it’s not much of one.
Both “Cherry Flavoured” and “Middle of Somewhere” hint at the regrets of commercial success and music industry burnout that Rutherford undoubtedly feels, having pursued more creative freedom with his solo project, but in turn completely erode the facade of Chrome. While these songs are a welcome breath of fresh air for the band, they illuminate a bigger issue: The futuristic imagery associated with the album feels disconnected from the music, as if the paint and reflective suits are simply a gimmick to sell the fact that The Neighbourhood’s sound is no longer one-note.
For an album supposedly about a disillusioned, monochromatic extraterrestrial who’s addicted to the internet, Chip Chrome & The Mono-Tones is disappointingly ordinary. And because there are sure to be comparisons, let’s be clear: Chip Chrome is no Ziggy Stardust.
While Chip Chrome & The Mono-Tones is certainly The Neighbourhood’s strongest release since the band’s debut, it only faintly begins to show signs of a fully realized personality. Chrome is merely a thinly-veiled mask for Rutherford and not so much of an alter ego, finally able to express basic revelations about himself and the band’s legacy with a level of candor that so much of the band’s previous music lacked. But maybe that’s a compelling case for the album in itself: It makes one wonder why it took wearing silver spandex and a chrome grill for Rutherford to make music with this much emotional honesty and sincerity in the first place.
Vincent Tran covers music. Contact him at [email protected].