This album opens with a spoken message, saying that it is best listened to “At night, and alone”. And indeed, that is exactly the overall atmosphere of the album…a private, pensive look into the psyche of a gifted songwriter with a fascinating story to tell.
This album is probably more famous for the hit dance remix of its lead single, “I Took a Pill in Ibiza”, than for anything on the album proper. This remix did work surprisingly well, but while it conveys quiet despair with a kind of Plastic Soul feel, the original is more philosophical and ultimately sounds at peace with its sad narrative of a lonely, forgotten one-hit wonder. It is the album’s opening track, and serves as a kind of microcosm for the album as a whole, which is mostly devoted to fleshing out the themes alluded to in “Ibiza”…the romantic loneliness, the bittersweet and fleeting nature of worldly success, and the quiet, philosophical acceptance. The latter in conveyed on the two most beautiful songs on the album, “Be As You Are” and the closing track “Buried in Detroit”, both of which are easily on the same level of beauty and depth as the best actual hit song of 2016, Lukas Graham’s “7 Years”.
The album has been jeered by certain amateur critics for its acoustic Folk-Pop sound (the lower grades of internet critics have a certain reflexive bias against anything played on an acoustic guitar), but it doesn’t really sound much like the usual targets of this group such as John Mayer or Jason Mraz. Posner himself, with his usual charming self-effacement, described the album’s sound as his “trying to make Country music and failing”. What the result actually sounds most like is Baroque Indie Folk, the kind of music made by such bands as Bon Iver, the Decemberists, or Iron and Wine. Only two songs diverge heavily from this sound…the haunting “Only God Knows”, which sounds almost like a throwback to Woody Guthrie, and the blistering Blues-Rocker “Jade”.
Posner himself comes across as immensely charming here. He’s always projected the persona of a humble, down-to-earth everyman; that was a liability early in his career, because at that point he was trying to market himself as a Pop-R&B showbiz personality in the vein of Trey Songz or Taio Cruz, and his persona was laughably inappropriate for that pose. But what was unsuitable for his early efforts proved ideal for a confessional singer-songwriter, and this album shows him to his absolute best advantage. He does indulge in a little boasting of his power on the penultimate track “(I know how to write) One Hell of a Song”, but by that point, he’s earned it. Even Posner’s singing here is the best it’s ever been: he was never a great vocalist, but the bizarre vocal stylings he attempted on his first album (which he describes as his attempt to “sing Hip-Hop”) convinced most of the public that he was a far worse singer than he actually is, and his vocals here, while a little thin in places, are actually quite pretty most of the time.
It’s worth noting that while most of the public had forgotten Posner’s existence between his hit “Cooler Than Me” in 2010 and the success of “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” in 2016, he had actually carried on a thriving career as a behind-the-scenes songwriter in the meantime, as he details on “One Hell of a Song”. The best of his efforts in that vein was the sublime “Beneath Your Beautiful”, a UK Number One hit for British singer Labrinth. Perhaps to repay Posner for writing one of the best songs of the decade for him, Labrinth joins Posner here for the biting “Silence” in the only featured credit on the album proper.
As fine and indeed nearly flawless as the original album is, the deluxe edition does mar its perfection somewhat with a string of ill-advised dance remixes. Granted, the “Ibiza” remix had worked, but it made a certain kind of sense, given that it was already about the pain beneath the mask of the Pop star. The other remixes just come off as out-of-place and unnatural, and do nothing but make the original songs much less interesting. The remix of “Buried in Detroit” does feature a surprisingly good guest verse by Big Sean, but it still doesn’t even approach the impact of the original.
Still, this is easily one of the best albums of 2016…which is saying more than those who only follow the Hot 100 would know, since 2016 was one of those years with a wealth of great Pop albums that was not really reflected by the singles charts. I might even go so far as to call this the best Folk album of its year, since that is what it is at heart…old-school confessional Singer-Songwriter Folk, telling the story of one man’s personal journey with understated music and heartfelt, intelligent lyrics. It’s a classic of a high order, and while Posner’s follow-up to it, Mansionz (a collaboration with his former songwriter partner Blackbear), unfortunately dove straight back into the “singing Hip-Hop” approach that made his first album such a joke, Posner has still established enough clear songwriting talent by now that I’m certain we haven’t seen the last of him yet.