Halfway between “Beth/Rest” on Bon Iver’s newest album and M83’s entire career, Pat Grossi’s Active Child combines synth-pop dynamics and atmospheres with lilting harp parts. This album lives and dies on your appreciation of a type of synth pop that hasn’t ever really been in style but seems to have been phenomenally popular around the time of The Breakfast Club. If it were possible for an album to fellate the abstract cultural approximation of a decade, You Are All I See would jump at the chance to take the entire 1980s in its gaping, synthy maw.
Grossi’s soaring vocals interact with multiple vocal harmonies and whooshingly insistent synths, all the while being played off of by drums that sound like they came in a box of wine coolers, prepackaged with as much shrink wrap as possible. This isn’t meant as a damning observation; in fact quite the opposite—the openly corny nature of Active Child’s music a) fits perfectly in with our indie-cultural milieu, what with its fixation on sexy-sax and Bruce Hornsby and Thundercats (or maybe that’s just me) and b) makes Grossi’s vocal theatrics endearing.
Maybe it’s just that chillwave, when it’s produced richly, contains songs and doesn’t care about lo-fi haze, sounds exactly like 1980s synth pop. Grossi doesn’t hesitate—he doubles down on his soulful and defiantly retro take on synth pop (You can almost hear him yelling “Justin Vernon ain’t got shit on me!”). Some stronger songwriting would have been interesting. The biggest caveat of this album is that the retro aesthetic mars Grossi’s attempts at emotional connection—it tries to resonate, but by tapping into our memories of heartstrings and not our actual heartstrings, it falls short. But as production goes, it’s a success: This is an album of synth brass, pitch-shifting vocals and drums bigger than the state of Nebraska and just as corny.
So yes, those who lived through gated reverb the first time might be groaning at “See Thru Eyes.” Those who tried to ignore Howard Jones might be tempted to hurl a few razor-sharp vinyls in this harpist-cum-synthpopper’s direction. Maybe Active Child represents the apex/nadir of our collective fixation with our memory of the 1980s—because really, the ’80s didn’t actually sound like this, much like it didn’t sound like “Beth/Rest” or Saturdays = Youth or chillwave or the remake of Thundercats, which is actually happening and surprisingly not terrible. I doubt the current generation of young musicmakers is done with nostalgia as a creative decision. But so long as nostalgia-wave sounds this good, maybe it doesn’t need to be too forward-thinking.