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A turned skeptic perspective on the singer songwriter's hard-hitting album

By Lakshanyaa Ganesh

Conan Gray is an artist from a small town in Texas known for hit singles like “Maniac” and “Crush Culture,” often compared to the likes of singer-songwriter Lorde. Now, as someone who views Lorde as royalty, I went into my first listens of his earlier singles with high expectations — and was immediately disappointed.

Yes, I know, you large legion of Conan supporters will read this and immediately want to tweet up a storm about why I’m wrong.

Hear me out. Something about the production and lyricism of his debut EP “Sunset Season” just didn’t click with me; the messaging in his songs seemed whiny and almost disingenuous. But, when I heard about his new premier album release, “Kid Krow,” I was immediately intrigued. Skimming over titles like “Affluenza” and “Fight or Flight,” paired with his own description of the album being almost diary-like, I’m willing to give him another chance.

Here are my first thoughts and impressions of each of the 12 tracks on “Kid Krow.”

1. Comfort Crowd

8 out of 10 stars

Right off the bat, this song had me hooked. The soft, anticipatory introduction with the layered harmonies caught me by surprise and added texture to the song. It gives off very ‘90s-style vibes with the soft, melodic vocals and laid back 808 beat, paired with modern production elements like a prominent bass guitar and a buildup in the chorus. It’s the type of song I could see playing in the background of TV shows like “Gilmore Girls.” Interestingly, this mesh of old school and new school production felt messy when I first listened to “Crush Culture.” With the song’s message being one of navigating new waters while craving past comforts, however, this style of production really works well in adding dimension to the song.

The lyrics/production dichotomy seems to follow a common trend in pop culture, where depressing experiences in lyrics are covered up by “happy” or upbeat production where the listener bops along to the lyrics without really digesting them. I personally find that these kinds of songs really capture the feeling of navigating away from home. In his interview with Apple Music, Gray explains that he wrote this song during a time in his life when he was starting college at UCLA coming from a small town in Texas, and how he really just needed his “comfort crowd” of people to feel safe during that time — a sentiment that’s especially relevant to seniors when we’re looking towards the future, moving away from our friends. There are already hard hitting messages in this first track, which intrigues and excites me for the rest of this album.

2. Wish You Were Sober

5 out of 10 stars

The introduction of this track is a jarring change from the ending of the last one, with the flippant (yet admittedly hilarious) lyrics immediately changing the tone. The production reminds me a lot of Taylor Swift’s “1989” album — Gray takes inspiration from Swift, so this makes sense. However, this track doesn’t offer anything different from most pop songs in the radio right now, with its generic melodies and buildup to a dance-beat production.

The upbeat and carefree nature of the chorus do some justice to the flippant, sarcasm-laced lyrics, but I’d be interested to hear an acoustic or stripped down version of the song to really bring out the message of chasing love from someone who doesn’t reciprocate it — a theme that’s common in songs but not really in the context of teens in the modern era. I can see myself jamming out to this during a drive to the beach in the summer, but it doesn’t stand out as anything special.

3. Maniac

7 out of 10 stars

Now, as an avid user of TikTok, I’ve heard the chorus to this song far more times than I’d like to admit. I’ve taken a few jabs at listening to the whole single, but it left me generally disinterested. After listening to the song within the context of the album as a whole, however, I realized that the intriguing retro vibes from the first track are back — with such a refreshing twist by bringing in the electric guitar laced throughout the intro. The buildup to the explosive chorus is also electric and really captures his message, as stated in his interview with Apple Music, of feeling frustrated in light of being accused of being a “maniacal,” manipulative partner, when “for once” he believes that he’s not the maniac here.

From my first listen prior to the release of the album, I may have judged this song too soon. Especially after the previous lackluster track, the explosive sound and what I’m believing to think is his signature style of meshing old school and new school production makes this track really stand out — it’s the classic “teen sad boy” sound that I just can’t get enough of.

4. (Online Love)

8 out of 10 stars

his interlude, serving as what I’m assuming will be a transition from the previous explosive, pop-sounding songs into more of a mellow section of the album, punched me in the gut from the first couple seconds alone. It’s a voice memo of just Gray’s vocals and his guitar, seemingly outside where we can hear laughter in a coffee shop and birds chirping. Maybe it’s just “shelter(ing)-in-place” that’s getting to me, but there’s a signature nostalgia to this track that makes me yearn for a trip to Starbucks with my best friends — hopefully this nostalgic feeling continues through the rest of the album.

5. Checkmate

4 out of 10 stars

So I was wrong about the mellow, softer sounding transition in theme. What immediately jumps out from this track is the modern production — especially in the verses, there’s a bouncy beat that makes you want to listen harder. It’s immediately contrasted by the indie, explosive chorus which sounds a lot like it needs to be in an old ‘90s rock track. There’s just something about the different styles and tempos that makes this song sound a little all over the place for me.

This type of sound may be intentional, however. Gray wrote this song in “a moment of pure seething anger,” which comes across in a really unique way through the straightforward lyrics yet frantic production — I’ll give it props for that. It’s still not something I can see myself coming back to, though.

6. The Cut That Always Bleeds

7 out of 10 stars

Now, this song is more of the ballad-type track that I was looking for. Most of it is just Gray’s emotion-packed vocals paired with a soft melody, eventually building up to a bittersweet electric guitar chorus, akin to an old-school, “Parachutes” era Coldplay song. This is the most authentic, vulnerable song on the album so far — Gray’s voice takes centerstage, dripping with emotion.

This track is a prime example of Gray’s strength in encapsulating the nuance of emotion — it manages to hold a tone of desperation and anger that would come with being in his situation, while still having that undertone of the love he holds for this person and his willingness to put himself in this position over and over again. It showcases the rollercoaster of being in a toxic relationship in such an authentic way, and he’s done it in a way that anyone can relate to; the toxic relationship he’s describing can be applicable both in and out of just romantic relationships.

7. Fight or Flight

3 out of 10 stars

To be completely honest, I didn’t even notice this was a different song from the last one — the production and tone sounds exactly the same to me, which makes this one hard to stand out. The lyrics also explore this idea of how his partner is moving onto someone new and he has to grapple with unrequited love and heartbreak — a theme that I think is pretty cliche in modern pop music.

This is more of a song that I can see myself playing in the background when I just want something filling the silence, but it’s not doing anything more for me.

8. Affluenza

9 out of 10 stars

This is one of the better storytelling songs on the album — a strength I think Gray needs to exploit more as he continues his songwriting journey. It’s a criticism, or moreso an exploration, of the pursuit of wealth in the context of social media and “influencer culture.” The laidback, almost sultry, yet bittersweet sound paired with the straightforward yet poignant lyrics encapsulate how we see teens on social media with wealth and “perfect lives,” and how it’s a sickness that’s spreading of people pining for it in midst of “influencer culture.”

The storytelling aspect as well as the retro/modern production is what makes this easily one of my favorites on this album. There is just something about this track that distinguishes itself as different from the rest of the album, while still following the general loose narrative of the album as a whole — this is probably one of the only tracks that I needed to put on repeat after the first listen.

9. (Can We Be Friends?)

7 out of 10 stars

In the second and last interlude of the album, I can definitely sense the Lorde vibes in the simple, dreamlike guitar melody and layered vocals, which capture the innocence and defiant vulnerability of childhood friendships.

Again, his interludes just stand out in their simplicity yet raw vulnerability.

10. Heather

8 out of 10 stars

This is another one of the tracks that really showcases Gray’s strength in laid back, acoustic “sad boy” songs like this one. The premise behind this song is especially unique — Gray talks about how his love interest is more interested in another girl named “Heather.” He explores this idea of hating this girl who realistically has done nothing wrong. With lyrics like “But how could I hate her / She’s such an angel / But then again, kinda / Wish she were dead,” Gray exposes his defiance and lack of fear in showcasing emotions that most of us have probably experienced but are too ashamed to vocalize.

The elusive queerness in the lyrics is also unique and is a refreshing addition to the pop world — from the pronoun usage in the song, we can gather that Gray’s love interest in the song is falling for another girl named Heather, but the gender of the love interest themself isn’t made clear. Gray himself has been elusive about his sexuality, but the fact that he’s using his platform to explore themes and ideas like these in a way that doesn’t draw attention to itself, in a way that normalizes queerness, is such an important concept that needs to be more present in the pop world. That being said, the production of the track is relatively simple and frankly lackluster, but it’s good that the lyrics and storytelling take a front seat — there just needs to be more of a balance between the two.

11. Little League

7 out of 10 stars

What immediately jumped out to me from the first couple seconds of this one were the lyrics — it’s immediately clear that Gray will explore the various emotions that come with nostalgia and reflecting on the “good old days.” It’s a theme that’s been analyzed over and over again, but Gray just manages to capture such nuance to the various emotions that come with growing up both through his lyrics and in the production. I didn’t know it was possible to be able to capture the nostalgic hope for the future yet simultaneous reflection on naivety in such a simple way in one song, yet here we are.

The production and feel of the song is largely cinematic and reminiscent of Taylor Swift and Lorde, but something about this song just shows Gray’s unique flair and originality. It’s again a song that I can see myself blaring in the car, but unlike “Wish You Were Sober,” this penultimate track packs an emotional punch that I frankly didn’t see coming.

12. The Story

10 out of 10 stars

This track is by far my favorite on the album. With the first lyric being “Let me tell you a story,” I knew I would be in for a ride. The production on this song is relatively simple — it just features Gray’s emotion-heavy vocals and a simple guitar, eventually building up to a folk-like, drum-heavy guitar ending. For a storytelling song like this, however, it works. There’s just something about this track that feels like we’re reading directly from Gray’s diary. There’s blatant queerness in the lyrics, which again showcases his fearlessness and willingness to normalize queer relationships in art. In his interview with Apple Music, he discusses having a rough childhood and battling suicidal ideation.

It captures what I think Gray’s art and album is all about — defiant vulnerability and empathy. The folksy, hopeful tone of the ending ties this whole album together and talks about how even though the process of growing up isn’t “funny, pretty, or sweet,” there’s still hope and people we can lean on.

It’s safe to say that my thoughts and expectations for this album and for this artist have completely changed. I think Gray’s ability to explore a variety of themes, like lost love and navigating growing up in a changing environment and so much more, is prominent and takes centerstage in this album, and the production also shows variety, with most of the songs featuring a unique blend of old sounds meshed with modern beats. It’ll take me a few more listens to really digest this album as a whole, but I can’t wait to see what he does next.