Album review: Unroyal is the brightest new band in synthpop

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There’s a phrase I use far too often to describe new music: This could be on a John Hughes soundtrack.

I’ve stopped saying that because it’s become a bit of a cliche, an easy way out to describe a certain type of 80s-inspired music I like. But I’m going to allow myself to use it one last time (that’s probably untrue) to describe Unroyal because it couldn’t be more apt. If John Hughes was alive and making movies today, there is no doubt that Unroyal would be on the soundtrack.

Unroyal is a Swedish synthpop duo who make charming, timeless synthpop tunes that perfectly capture the spirit of Hughes movies like Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club. Songs about young love, heartache, that confusing place between your teenage years and adulthood, the power of music to unite us.

Earlier this year, they made their debut with a 4-track EP called Rest in Songs that felt polished and assured. This band knew exactly what they wanted to sound like and what they wanted to say. All 4 tracks are fantastic, but my favorite is “We Play Remain in Light,” an uplifting¬† song about how we bond over music, in this case, the famous album by Talking Heads. It is one of the best songs of the year.¬†

On their first full-length album, Unroyal cements their sound. Mainstream is a stunning collection of synthpop songs full of emotion, capturing the highs and lows of the human experience. They are one of the most compelling new bands on the synthpop scene.

It’s no coincidence that the first reference point to describe Unroyal’s sound is Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, whose best known song is the title track of a Hughes movie. Like OMD, Unroyal combine elegant synthlines with earnest, heartfelt lyrics.

In the spirit of classic synthpop, the songs feel simple with a single synthline running across each track to give emphasis to the vocals. Track two, “The Great Undoing,” has a simple “Ding. Ding-ding” synth motif that recalls Vince Clark-era Depeche Mode.

But don’t be deceived, there’s depth here.

On standout track “Adulthood,” for instance, the twinkling bleeps from the synths increase in tempo, which gives the song a propulsive, chaotic vibe. It perfectly encapsulates the song’s message about losing part of yourself as you get older. These lyrics nail what it feels like to become an adult:

“You’re falling, you’re turning inside out, collapsing into pieces, the dream starts fading now.”

Heartache is perhaps the greatest emotion felt across the album. “Something Stayed,” which has a deep, driving bassline and the warmth you can only wring out of an analogue synth, is a song about its lingering impact.

But that brokenhearted feeling is most apparent on the deceptively cheery “I’m Still Insane,” a tune that captures how past relationships have the power to drive you mad. These lyrics are crazy good:

“I wish that things were different, but the madness still remains.”

I bristled when I first heard that this album is called Mainstream. This is alternative electronic, anything but mainstream! The title becomes clear once you listen to the album, these are emotions that every single one of us experiences.

Several songs on the album name specific people (Ardenne, Alexander, Eli), as if they’re old friends giving you advice. I don’t know who these people are, but I definitely want to hang out with them on a Saturday afternoon in detention.

Favorite tracks: Adulthood, I’m Still Insane, Don’t Force It Alexander

Unroyal - Mainstream
Unroyal – Mainstream
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