Madison Beer, the former teen YouTube sensation and Disney tabloid fascination (you can thank a Bieber co-sign for that one) is now 21 years old and has been building up buzz on social media towards the release of her debut studio album. A highly personal journey into a dark pop soundscape, Beer sings mostly through Prismizer harmonies as she tackles subjects such as her diagnosis with borderline personality disorder, feeling drawn to romantic toxicity and struggling with thoughts of self-harm. Although Beer’s raw lyrical thoughts can be incredibly affecting at times, especially as they are delivered via a surprisingly powerful singing voice that flits effortlessly from passionate belts to extreme vulnerability, most of that authenticity is unfortunately buried behind a flood of studio trickery and misplaced ambition. Many of these tracks suffer heavily from structural issues, a beat switch or an abrupt shift in energy throwing things off, while the many effects and filters placed on Beer’s vocals obstruct the natural shine of a beautiful, technically skilled new voice in the pop scene. Nearly all of these tracks have elements of pop perfection, but almost none of them follow through to the finish line.
After a brief, cascading intro of Beer’s voice layering endlessly upon itself, the project opens with one of its strongest songs, “Good in Goodbye.” A trap-infused dark pop track, it opens with some haunted-house synth-piano keys as Beer plays fully into the devilish minor-key melodies on display with some of her most snarling vocal takes. Confidently moving on from a relationship, the chorus sees her having fun riffing on some classic “you put the ‘ex’ in ‘next’”-type wordplay, but the real intriguing parts are where she backs herself up with some surprisingly complex harmonies and shows off her impressive range. If Beer and her producers felt just as confident in the strong foundation at the core of just about any other track here, instead of throwing it aside and jumping recklessly to another idea in the name of making things seem serious, artsy and “adult,” we’d have a much better album. The track transitions into “Default,” which essentially feels like another interlude only three tracks in with its short length and intentionally chaotic and disjointed instrumentals as she sings about emotionally crumbling. Turns out, that’s just the sound of most of the rest of the album.
The track “Follow the White Rabbit” is the first in the awkward shifts in energy littered throughout the album, as the track transitions with an abrupt jolt from a slinking, sensual vibe with a great melody to a stilted, blown-out chorus of straightforward, robotic delivery and obnoxiously pounding, pulsating synths. “I don’t know, the lyrics are pretty random, but they’re fun,” Beer said about the track in a revealing interview regarding the level of effort put into what is supposed to be a concept album. The track “Effortlessly,” on the other hand, is one of the least tampered with songs here. As a result, it offers much more of a deeply moving portal into Beer’s mind and allows her vulnerable, broken delivery to shine through. Singing sadly about missing the times she was able to do things like smile or breathe genuinely, without a self-sabotaging or negative thought attached, as well as criticizing the pharmaceutical industry, Beer offers a striking portrait of clinical depression that moves far past the surface-level analyses of many of her musical peers.
The track “Stay Numb and Carry On” continues Beer’s lyrical themes of grappling with mental health, approaching it from a more sarcastic angle as she twists the classic WWII slogan into a self-mockery of her unhealthy coping mechanisms. Once again, the excellent verses contrast heavily with an energy black hole of a chorus. Getting bitingly specific about the rising panic that leads to Beer distancing herself emotionally over a driving, almost rock-inspired live drumbeat, the track feels as though it’s building to something even bigger before the percussion drops back for a strangely Disney-esque, happy-sounding chorus with more melodramatic lyrics. It might have been intentional to mirror her state of numbness, but it turns such an interesting and personality-driven song into something flat and generic. “Blue” comes with similar structural issues, but it’s elevated past in a way that many of the other tracks can’t achieve because it also comes equipped with an absolutely flawless, exhilarating pop chorus. Beer’s Prismizer vocals are shifted mid-note to give off the impression of a wavering, tear-streaked voice, creating some fantastically dissonant harmonies along the way as Beer repeats the album’s central mantra: “I know when to run when my makeup does.” It doesn’t fit with the rest of the track at all, but when it connects with a sudden added drumbeat then drops away to a cappella at the end of the song, it doesn’t matter. Though not as strong of a song as others in the style here, the track “Homesick” thankfully drops back the production once again for an acoustic ballad where you can hear the little intricacies in Beer’s young voice brimming with potential.
Strangely enough, most of the tracks that have connected with the public are all stuck in the album’s third quarter. “Selfish” continues the acoustic angle with a more viscerally believable emotional ballad with a glistening central melody, Beer’s vocals breaking through as the tiny cracks and wavers break through in a powerful way as she sings of her bitter disappointment in a relationship faltering again in a lower register. Completely unnecessary Auto-Tune later in the track, overproduced bridge and lyrics about astrology aside, it’s once again much less of a diversion from the diamonds at the track’s core than many others on the project. “Sour Times” is somehow so bland and meandering of a track that it’s easy to miss some terrifyingly honest lyrics about people trying to take advantage of her in her most mentally distraught moments. It’s easy to see what they were going for with the industrial, rollicking vibes of the confident “BOYS**T” as a big single, but the central pun is so deeply silly and her overly cutesy delivery doesn’t quite match the “boss” energy they were going for. The equally upbeat “Baby” fares better with some more great backing harmonies, a knockout bridge and an infectiously flirtatious lead vocal, but it’s still hard to shake the thought that Beer is destined for so much more than formulaic pop tracks, fun as they may be.
As the album reaches its conclusion, the themes continue – more powerful lyrics and excellent vocal takes, strange chasms in musical structure and somewhat derivative aspects. “Stained Glass” and “Emotional Bruises” both feel distinctly Radiohead, but the latter’s waltz tempo and classic chord structure works so well for a reason, easily winning me over with some clever lyrics hiding a countdown. “Everything Happens for A Reason,” however, is a truly baffling conclusion. Beer’s backing vocals are manipulated beyond recognition and listenability to sound like a twangy country guitar, making it impossible to pay attention to the emotional lyrics in front.
Life Support is one of the most frustrating listens I’ve had in a very long time, and it’s not because it’s bad – Beer’s potential is so abundantly clear, but the kinks to be ironed out before it shines are so blatantly huge that it’s difficult to enjoy them as it stands. Still, the magical moments are there on almost every song here. We’ll have to see where the young star goes next as she develops further.
Favourite Tracks: Effortlessly, Good In Goodbye, Blue, Selfish
Least Favourite Track: Follow The White Rabbit