Apparently completely dialled into making music and the creative process while riding out the COVID-19 storm, Detroit singer-songwriter Quinn XCII delivers his second pandemic album and is currently on pace to land his biggest first-week debut yet. As evidenced by the album’s title, a sequel to a 2015 EP, XCII relocated to his main producer’s family home in Newport, Rhode Island for a change in perspective. The resulting music is a little more stripped back, more focused on guitar work and missing the flashy pop production and big guest stars that coloured last year’s A Letter to My Younger Self. What does stick around is XCII’s feel-good nature and relatable, smartly written narratives. XCII writes about pretty basic, everyday emotions, but with just a little bit more specificity than your average pop star that elevates things into a territory that is often surprisingly touching. While the more understated and minimalistic backdrop to this project certainly does expose more of XCII’s somewhat derivative nature and nasal vocal delivery, his strengths as a songwriter and overall instinct for great pop music still make Change of Scenery II a worthwhile collection.
After an atmospheric intro evoking wind chimes and the band tuning up, simply titled “We Made This Album in Newport,” the project opens with one of its most decidedly minimalistic tracks in “Distracted Youth.” Coasting on little more than an oscillating three-note guitar melody and the most basic of backing drumbeats, all of the focus is directed to XCII’s storytelling in front as he steps into the shoes of a disillusioned younger person looking for fleeting moments of happiness. For some reason, after his past album explored such deeply personal and autobiographical themes with XCII’s poetic songwriting style, his tendencies to apply that to other people’s lives by trying to tap into the relatability pulse of the Gen Z listener on a couple occasions here slightly rubs me the wrong way. The 28-year-old has a couple songs gesturing at college life later on in the album, but this one talking about how he is more interested in a casual fling than marriage, directly preceding a track called “My Wife & 2 Dogs,” about, yes, his real wife and 2 dogs, is the strangest occurrence here. Still, for fans of XCII’s soothing vocals and writing style, the stripped-back track is a nice way to ease into things and introduce the sound of his latest venture. “My Wife & 2 Dogs” sees XCII essentially telling the story of how the album came to be over a trap beat and some echoey acoustics, singing about needing a new environment to get the creative juices firing again and continuing to seek purpose in a pandemic – and also, wanting a little more cash flow to start an idyllic family life in a new house. XCII’s honesty is charming and hilarious on one of the catchier melodies here, and replacing the word “dogs” with a single woof is a great little detail. “SOS” continues a strong opening run with some great booming percussion and a chorus that’s a little reminiscent of The Chainsmokers’ unstoppable “Closer” – that is, XCII knows just what works every time in a pop context and does it here with a more engaging musical backdrop.
The track “Hey, Goodbye,” a little further into the album’s runtime, is the kind of simple but incredibly powerful melody that you wonder how someone else didn’t dream up first, and XCII knows it too when he dedicates the bridge to simply replicating it through a guitar solo. Kicking off with a bouncy, plucked instrumental, he sings it in his typically understated fashion before the backdrop ultimately rises up to give it the gravitas it deserves. Telling the story of a perfect relationship taken for granted that ended abruptly, XCII’s tone is tinged with the slightest hint of sadness, sounding almost like he’s struggling to get out that final “goodbye” as he retells the story. I’ve been singing this one nonstop since I heard it. The track “Mexico City” is another really strong one, a truly strange but decidedly XCII story about a woman falling in love and spontaneously starting a new life with a hitchhiker she picked up, but XCII’s blunt and carefree tone as he tells the story of these two quirky characters makes this one a highlight. Whether its his jubilant flips into falsetto or the decisive plod as he says “get drunk,” it’s hard not to smile.
Although we don’t see the blackbears and Logics of the world on this one, XCII still does recruit a few guests onto this project – although, a couple of them bring something that is so similar to XCII’s own approach that you can barely tell they’re there. Indie-pop artist Jeremy Zucker appears on the track “Doris Terrace” to sing alongside XCII about pandemic-induced insanity. It’s one of the more digitized tracks here with a muted synth pattern complementing the more desensitized vocal tones on display. While the downtrodden but hopeful sound of the song is a nice addition to the tracklisting that continues to play into XCII’s feel-good and relatable angle, the track’s conclusion that life goes on and “the sun will shine on you” regardless of how you handle things feels like a little bit too much of a nice bow placed on a track that opens with XCII confessing he has felt suicidal. The track “Stay Next to Me,” featuring Chelsea Cutler, cuts deep with COVID still running rampant as well, but for an entirely different reason that makes the track fare much better. Clearly just as desperate as everyone else for the return of live music, XCII tells the story of a chance romantic encounter with a stranger at a concert that turns into a surprisingly tender and touching duet set to warm piano chords. The track “We Don’t Talk Enough” brings fellow numerically-named singer Alexander 23 on board, the two harmonizing over a somber acoustic loop about drifting apart from friends as social opportunities diminish. The track is short, but it hits at the core of a universal feeling and does its job well.
The quality falls off a little as the album reaches its end, XCII’s songwriting falling back into more familiar places and the accompanying tunes not as attention-grabbing as they need to be to keep things running. The track “Monday Morning” is another one about anticipating the end of a relationship, but the climactic lyric “Am I the only one who’s sad? (Woo!)” rings a little too close to home to collaborator Logic’s much-maligned “Who can relate?” on a suicide prevention anthem that could have been much more legitimately important than it was. The track “Feel Something,” as well, once again deals with the numbed emotions provided by a year of quarantine, but the lyrics here veer sharply between surface-level and overused hyperbole. The album closes with “Look How Far We’ve Come,” an upbeat number ending things on a positive note as XCII marvels at all of his achievements regardless of the world around him over some peppy synth chords.
Change of Scenery II is a slight step back from XCII’s previous project, but it still certainly displays his sharp songwriting instincts and offers some much-needed comfort as we continue to push through this pandemic. It’s clear that this was more of a personal undertaking for him to not go insane, and there’s a lot to respect about that.
Favourite Tracks: Hey Goodbye, My Wife & 2 Dogs, Mexico City, Stay Next To Me
Least Favourite Track: Doris Terrace