Bad Bonez, the new album by bedroom pop prodigy Michael Seyer, is a grower. On first listen, there’s not much to distinguish it from the sea of hypnagogia that dominates Bandcamp in 2018, but Seyer has a knack for crafting tastefully restrained hooks that reward revisitation. Still, listeners who are immune to the charms of 80s AOR throwback cheese may struggle to squint through the post-chillwave haze to find the songs beneath.
Almost every sound on Bad Bonez has a clear aesthetic antecedent, and Seyer synthesizes these reference points into something idiosyncratic, if not quite original. The approach works best on tunes like “Lucky Love”, a gorgeous bit of depresso-surf in the tradition of Santo & Johnny, but much of the time it comes off pretty shallow. “Father”, for example, quotes Nirvana lyrics while hinting at the bassline from Portishead’s “Glory Box”… but doesn’t do much else.
There’s nothing wrong with some earnest derivation, but Seyer’s genre references often come with a cloying, ironic wink that takes me out of the moment like a visible boom mic in a sex scene. Midway through “Ring Around the Rosie”, Seyer goofily stage-whispers the word “solo” and a wah-wah guitar dutifully noodles for a few bars. “I Feel Best When I’m Alone” opens with a Barry White-style rap — complete with a pitched-down “Heyyy, baby” — and actually ends with the actual sound of actual crickets. It’s reminiscent of Beck’s honky soul brother phase, but somehow even less subtle.
Thankfully, Seyer is as interested in songcraft as he is in genre, and every track on Bad Bonez has at least one inspired choice that makes it worth replaying. “Show Me How You Feel (Eros)” comes in like another cartoony slow jam, but the chorus is an undeniable cascade of staccato guitar stabs landing in unison with Seyer’s brittle falsetto. It’s one example of an experience I keep having with this album: on repeat listens, songs that seem like airy little nothings prove themselves to be masterful earworms.
In the midst of all these pleasant genre exercises, “Kill All Your Darlings” emerges as an immediate standout and the beating heart of the album. A weird and wonderful little piece of outsider pop, it’s built on little more than a bossanova-inspired acoustic guitar line, some slapback reverb, and a pitched-down vocal. The effect is unnerving but oddly endearing, sounding a bit like maudlin death-folkers Dead Western covering Tiny Tim.
The last verse of “Darlings” — where Seyer’s ghoulishly deepened voice invites us to realize that “Ugly is so much fun / And you’re happy with what you’ve done” — reads like a self-contained mission statement. I wish that Bad Bonez had more of these otherworldy moments, where genre is transcended rather than winked at. But Seyer is only 23 years old, and finding his voice without the help or hindrance of a record label. There’s a kernel of outré greatness here and I can’t wait to hear what’s next.
Bad Bonez is now streaming, and available for download on Michael Seyer’s Bandcamp page.