Montreal’s TOPS have been dealing in dreamy, synth led pop for nearly a decade now, and I Feel Alive, their fourth album, shows that they’re not losing their touch. This new album feels like a bit of a fresh start for the quartet – it’s the first to feature new band member Marta Cikojevic on keyboards, and the first record they’ve released on their new record label Musique TOPS.
That said, I Feel Alive is more a case of a band embellishing their sound than making any radical new departures. Jane Penny is an expert at writing slightly off-kilter pop (there’s a flute solo at the end of opening track Direct Sunlight) and her band know how to construct some big hooks – the title track has a chorus that’s almost willing you to sing along less a minute in.
Although this is very much an album which would sound perfect blaring out of an FM radio station on a sunny day, the moments that work best on I Feel Alive are the stranger, more experimental moments. Drowning In Love features a spoken word interlude in French, a call and response chorus and ends suddenly on a solitary dog’s bark. Ballads & Sad Movies, one of the best tracks on the album, is a lovely wallow in ennui, mixing Penny’s synths with some warm guitar chimes, and lines that seem to sum up a break-up perfectly: “my favourite ballads and sad movies don’t do anything for me now… I just don’t know who I am anymore”.
At first listen, I Feel Alive is just perfect background music for wallowing in – very much in the icily cool mould of the likes of Phoenix or Chromatics. Yet repeated listens bring out an intriguingly darker side. Pirouette appears to be about the loneliness that casual sexual encounters can bring: “A silhouette of a stranger said, when lying in bed, you’re on your own now.” And even the seemingly euphoric title track has an edge to it, as demonstrated by the opening line of “When I saw you wanted to spend the night with someone else at home, I knew it wasn’t right”.
The only issue with TOPS is that most of the songs do tend to stick to the same formula quite rigorously, so much so that, by the time that the album’s 35 minutes have come to a close, each track seems to have merged into each other. Also, during the second half of the record, there’s a bit too much soft rock/pop filler – so much so that one song title seems to sum up the album as a whole: OK Fine Whatever.
For there’s a lot to enjoy on I Feel Alive, but the general feeling of lovelorn listlessness can take its toll on a full listen. With the summer months on the horizon though, this could make a decent soundtrack even while we’re all on lockdown.