Pop

Conan Gray Is One Of Pop’s Most Vulnerable Hitmakers

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Conan Gray was preternaturally ready for life on the internet. Despite the kind of chaotic and abusive upbringing that so many children in America unfortunately experience, Conan found resilience in creativity, and sharing his many artistic projects with a community online. After video diaries and a visual art series began to blow up on YouTube, Conan released his first song, “Idle Town,” back in 2017, and became a pop star almost immediately after that. It only took a few months for Republic Records — home of his idol, Taylor Swift, no less — to scoop him up, and a debut EP, Sunset Season, came shortly after in 2018. Spending the next two years touring, releasing singles, and carefully readying a debut album, Gray was one of so many artists whose 2020 turned out much differently than expected.

Dropping Kid Krow about a week after the initial lockdowns began, and putting plans to perform at his first Coachella on ice, Conan still earned a top five spot on the Billboard charts and had the track “Heather” go viral on TikTok. The bulk of Kid Krow is about relationships with frustrating ends — or, with frustrating beginnings and middles, too, a bloodletting of high school cliques, fake friends, and toxic crushes. It’s both a continuation and refinement of the sound that Gray established on his early YouTube singles and initial EP, and likely would’ve been a much bigger album if the rollout hadn’t been eclipsed by a global crisis. But, maybe all things turn out how they’re supposed to, because as great as Kid Krow was, Conan’s follow-up album is even better. Superache is aptly named, an album full of songs about wanting and hoping, a more grown up approach to the relationship frustrations that defined Kid Krow.

Kicking off with “Movies” and “People Watching,” two songs about wanting to feel a love that seems omnipresent but is still somehow inaccessible, there’s a lighter touch on Superache than Gray’s songwriting had in the past. Even when he gets closer to the scorched earth feel, like on “Disaster” and “Jigsaw,” there’s a sense of lived experience in these songs that adds a layer of depth. Much of Kid Krow was obsessed with what-if’s and potential relationships that never quite jelled — Superache is about the aftermath. And, there’s plenty of songs on this record that expand Gray’s palette past the subjects of unrequited love or breakup drama. Even “Memories,” one of the album’s standout tracks, offers a new angle on the age-old situation of seeing an ex for the first time after a breakup.

When he gets even farther off topic though, Gray’s storytelling skill really shines, like on the trauma-exploring “Family Line,” which examines Gray’s troubled upbringing once more, interrogating just how close he is to the mistakes his parents have made. Another left-field song, “Best Friend,” dips a toe into the world of trap beats, praising a ride-or-die (platonic?) friend with the same fervor generally reserved for loathing an ex. It’s the kind of song that the eternally single will relate to, the rare track devoted to a platonic relationship instead of a romantic one, and a celebration of the way completely accepting someone, flaws and all, breeds a sense of safety and comfort.

For the second time, Gray worked closely with producer Dan Nigro on the record, and though Nigro is now synonymous with the success of Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour, his working relationship with Gray predates Olivia’s debut. Still, close listeners will hear some similarities in vocal style between Gray and Rodrigo, like clusters of close harmonies, emotional delivery, and slowly enunciated words, and the two also happen to be fast friends outside of music as well. Unlike Sour, though, Superache isn’t afraid to go long and slow, with plenty of ballads that hold up just as well as the bangers — “Astronomy,” “Summer Child,” and “Footnote” all lean more heavily into the acoustic side of things.

At just twelve songs, Superache is relatively short in terms of a modern pop record, but each song is a thoughtful expansion and nothing ever drags. The only truly puzzling decision was the choice to relegate “Overdrive,” a joyous, chaotic single from early 2021, to bonus track status. That one, along with “Telepath,” represents a couple of the more upbeat singles Gray put out last year, but the pair were bumped for some of the slower singles included instead. And if the only thing wrong with Superache is that there are so many great songs that a couple of early singles needed to appear as bonus tracks, well, that’s a good problem to have. Gray’s second album makes the riskier choice to go much deeper into the vulnerable side of things, and the fact that these downtempo tracks can still be hits is a testament to his staying power.

Superache is out now via Republic Records. Get it here.

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