Globally dominant a cappella quintet Pentatonix mercifully toss aside the Christmas covers – is everyone aware that they have FOUR Christmas albums? – and return with their second ever set of originals and first since their self-titled 2015 album. Once a boundlessly creative group, their transformation into grandmother-approved background music mainstays has essentially lessened the need for formal reviews of their music. The group have settled into a shamelessly overt formula, and you know exactly what the project is going to sound like before you even hit play. While it’s far from a return to their glory days, hearing the band once again inject some of their own personalities into a series of originals does reignite a couple small embers of that original creative spark. The individual talents of the five members are still stellar from a technical standpoint, and when they place the right spotlights on the members’ greatest strengths, it’s almost enough to rise above the trite lyricism straight off of an “inspirational” sign to hang on the wall, studio wizardry detracting from the a cappella magic, and tired arrangements.
The opening track “Happy Now” opens with the same series of upbeat handclaps you’ve heard kick off countless PTX songs and curiously decides that the first notes we hear on the album should be a filtered, digitally manipulated whoosh of the group’s vocals fading in. Pentatonix were so impressive in their days of reality-show fame because there weren’t many other a cappella groups that were able to match their rhythmic synergy and flawless recreations of existing tracks with a litany of quirky reimaginings scattered through – their big, overproduced sound now feels like some of that soul has been sapped away. Still, of all of the starry-eyed inspirational tracks here featuring shallow and universally applicable lyrics about love, connection and mental health, “Happy Now” is easily the most enjoyable. Tenor and main vocalist Scott Hoying’s leap up an octave as his bandmates steadily fill out the instrumental behind him sees him continuing to show off a truly spectacular range, and the shouted group vocals in the final explosion of a chorus might come close to making even the greatest cynic throw up their hands and join in on their self-love anthem. The track’s lyrics are gratingly repetitive, essentially a 1-minute song looped in various ways, but the impressive rhythmic aspects of their early work return in full force.
The album’s opening run continues with “Love Me When I Don’t” and “Coffee in Bed,” both bringing back the same simple syncopated rhythms and safe, gospel-esque chords that have coloured 90% of their work for the past half-decade. Soprano Kirstie Maldonado takes the lead vocal duties on the former’s chorus, a more forceful tone than usual taking the typically gorgeous nuance out of her performance as every note lines up squarely and expectedly with the beat. Despite some vocal percussion work so impressive I can’t help but wonder if some of it was actually a drum machine on “Coffee,” the central lyric is delivered awkwardly by the always startlingly high falsetto of Mitch Grassi before a dated dance drop featuring some more filtered vocals. How do they plan to perform these tracks live when the hookiest aspects aren’t true a cappella?
The weakest aspects of Pentatonix’s recent output all crop up around the album’s middle before a stronger conclusion. The track “Be My Eyes” turns the constant lyrical repetition and awkward phrasing up to a fever pitch as the group repeats the track’s title in a truly unappealing rhythm that puts the emphasis on “my” for what probably verges on three-quarters of the song’s runtime, filling up the empty space with more straightforward whole-note chords and predictable harmonies. The track “Side” is the peak of the group’s lyrical shortcomings here, Mitch Grassi taking the lead vocal and sounding almost as if he’s trying to fill up the word count of an essay by saying the same thing repeatedly in different ways, a curiously halfhearted performance sounding strangely unsure of himself being exposed by the track’s more somber and minimal arrangement. The track “Bored” contains an interpolation of legendary metal band System of a Down’s anti-war protest song “BYOB,” except that everyone really is going to the party to have a real good time, and that’s about all you need to know on that front. It’s one of the most immediately cringeworthy tracks in years, and a seriously misguided choice.
A couple of these originals certainly do see the group’s personality shine through, augmenting a couple of these tracks where the confidence they deliver their own stories with lends itself to more of a sense of fun and authenticity rather than ticking off the boxes on a checklist. The track “A Little Space” is more of a breezy, upbeat number that plays well to Scott Hoying’s effortless cool as he asserts his need for a little me time, the other group members backing him up with a higher-pitched kiss-off with each line’s final rhyming word. The faster tempo makes the group members building up chords one note at a time all the more impressive as they lock in some complicated rhythms, as well as vocal percussionist Kevin Olusola getting in on things with some fizzy mouth trumpet sounds bringing back some of that pure a cappella feeling. The track “Exit Signs” is easily the project’s big show-stopper, as Kirstie Maldonado finally gets to show off the full extents of her immense vocal talent on a slower, emotional song. Opening with some beautifully dissonant Imogen Heap-style harmonies, Maldonado’s distraught performance slowly begins to lay out the world of the song as her relationship crumbles, the warm bass notes and full arrangement providing a blanket of support for her paper-thin and vulnerable delivery. With some unexpectedly jazzy notes thrown into the main melody, by the time some skittering vocal percussion performance drops into the 2nd chorus, filling things out even further, Maldonado’s vocal has me hypnotized as she builds up to some big notes.
The album’s final run of tracks continues to show the group’s limitless potential for greatness despite a couple more of the self-imposed restrictions storming back. All the same, hearing these original tracks will always be more enjoyable than covers of huge pop songs if the sonic risk-taking by the group is going to be diminished. Despite another overproduced dance drop of bass Matt Sallee’s chopped-up vocals, the track “Never Gonna Try Again” is a genuinely fascinating and clearly personal lyrical exploration of the pitfalls of building an audience and achieving first widespread fame on the Internet, feeling as though identity is lost through conformation to algorithms. “It’s Different Now” completely throws aside the concept of a cappella as the group sings over a plaintive piano line, but Maldonado’s soaring top end on the emotional chorus once again strikes a nerve. If there’s one thing that Pentatonix consistently delivers upon excellently, it’s the moving and tearful power ballad a la “Run to You.” Closing track “The Lucky Ones” brings back a heavy helping of cheesiness with some strangely disjointed transitions as the track shifts from one section to another, but once again the track’s personal connection is made evident as they marvel at the good fortune of the continuous support they receive from fans and look back to the tumultuous early days.
As a very early fan, watching Pentatonix shift from the coolest new thing out there to the smiling faces trotting out their latest Christmas cover on either Jimmy’s late night show has been strange to say the least. It’s clear that their torrid release pace has slowed down their creative spark, but it’s still worth it to hear these spellbinding talents hit on something great every once in a while.
Favourite Tracks: Exit Signs, A Little Space, It’s Different Now
Least Favourite Track: Side