Daphne & Celeste Save the World is a throwback, both in an obvious way and a not so obvious way. In the first sense, this is just another step in the long line of sequelitis that’s affected our culture since the turn of the century: be it the New Kids on the Block, Full House, Alvin & the Chipmunks, Wolfenstein 3-D, Beavis & Butthead, Aqua, whatever…nothing ever truly goes away anymore, for better or (mostly) worse. For the most part this is just a natural product of modern day living in a capitalist society; pop culture ruled our childhoods so hard that every 30-something with cash has fond memories of something. Now, Daphne & Celeste are not really one of those things; you may remember one of their two hits, you might have remembered that they got bottled off the stage at Reading, you may have even had their CD as a child and annoyed the hell out of your parents with it. But even if you did, you probably have not thought of them since 2001, when Daphne & Celeste got dropped by their label and became…I dunno, librarians or whatever.
If anything, this makes a comeback more interesting, since you know it’s not gonna be a cash grab or an empty excuse to tour again. A group like Aqua coming back and releasing a disappointing LP was expected by just about everyone; Daphne & Celeste getting back together in 2018 as 30-something women and releasing a follow-up to an album they recorded as teenagers is a legitimately strange occurrence. But that’s the other way this is a throwback; it hearkens back to a time when pop music was clever, unexpected, and yes, very strange. A time when bands like Pink Floyd and ELP topped the charts and a deliberate weirdo like Frank Zappa could sell out everywhere he went. A time that ended when the record industry realized that selling ten million copies of one album made considerably more money than selling ten thousand copies of a thousand different records. A time that led to the formation and quick dissolution of manufactured groups like Daphne & Celeste, propped up by anonymous songwriters looking to make a quick buck.
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Save the World is practically the exact opposite; written, produced, and agonizingly labored over by Max Tundra, it is exactly the sort of album that might’ve been a hit in some bygone era, or perhaps an alternate reality where Sparks became everyone’s favorite operatic pop band instead of Queen. It is an exercise in performative oddness, a teen pop album that begins with a reference to Stephen Hawking and ends with a cover of Captain Beefheart, centered around perhaps the most unlikely duo to make a comeback in 2018. Even the most straightforward track “You & I Alone” is full of idiosyncrasies – a beat that sounds like footsteps walking away, lyrics about cassette tapes and sawtooth rhythms, and a spoken-word bridge that namedrops everything from Prince to Twin Peaks. It’s sleek and modern, but feels like it was written for another era. I mean, who the hell uses “talking on the phone” in a chorus these days?
Often music like this indulges in weirdness for its own sake, but Save the World keeps things surprisingly tuneful, even when it’s blasting in garbled chiptune noise (“Taking Notes”, “Whatever Happened to Yazz?”) or tripping over its own chorus (“A.L.T.O.”). Like everything Max Tundra does, there’s always more than meets the ear, but when you combine that with the voices and pop instincts of Daphne & Celeste you get a record that’s really quite deceptive. This is a pop record through-and-through, and I think if you squint hard enough it’s really not far off from their first album, although it is of course much much better. I mean that pure pop sensibility is still there, and the old, shit-talking Daphne & Celeste do make an appearance, though their insults now contain words like “blithe” and “hetero-normative”. It’s actually a bit too self-aware in spots – “Whatever Happened to Yazz?” is obviously not just about Yazz, and Tundra can’t stop writing lyrics about his synthesizers. Meanwhile, “BB” spends its opening mocking the chorus of an Ed Sheeran-type but then weaves that same chorus into a brilliant and hyperactive tune.
As a whole, Daphne & Celeste Save the World comes off as a concept album about the state of pop music, and told by two women who understand the superficiality of it better than anyone. There’s something deeply hilarious about a tune as gorgeous and melodically rich as “Song for a Succulent” going to a couple of girls whose most famous single was “Ooh! Stick You”. When the album’s on, it’s really on; both “16 Stars” and “Alarms” trip that “oh my god this is the best thing in the universe” switch that all pop music ought to aspire to. But it’s solid from start to finish – there’s not a bad song on this thing, and what’s more it actually seems to get better on each listen, especially as the various quirks and Easter Eggs start to sink in. This the sort of music I hear in my head when people get really enthusiastic about ABBA, for instance. And really, I don’t see how it could’ve be anything less – this is a comeback and collaboration so utterly bizarre that it couldn’t help but be great. In other words, it’s the absolute inverse of the Stone Roses reunion, which was so obvious and overdue that it was bound to suck. I only regret that they got to use the title Second Coming before these gals did.