The Swedish-American pop/production trio of Andrew Wyatt, Christian Karlsson, and Pontus Winnberg have amassed a formidable backlog of pop bangers over the last decade. As Bloodshy & Avant, Winnberg and Karlsson sexed up Britney Spears’ visionary “Toxic,” clubbed up Katy Perry’s “Love Me,” and raved up Madonna’s “How High,” among others. Wyatt has also co-written and produced material for the Libertines’ Carl Barat, as well as funk-pop titans Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson. Needless to say, these guys have found their way to the charts one way or another.
So it’s no surprise that under their collective alias Miike Snow, their 2009 self-titled album helped lead the late-’00s into a splashy wave of radio-friendly alt-synthpop alongside deep-V’d cohorts Passion Pit, Empire of the Sun, and MGMT. Its 2012 follow-up, Happy to You, relied less on the firepower of ubiquitous, opulent singles like “Animal” and instead focused on crafting a piano-pumped, almost AM-radio aura. Now, seven years into their career with iii, they shift gears again, this time favoring a clear melding of old-school Motown (“Trigger”) and more hip-hop-informed ’90s R&B (“Back of the Car”). But it doesn’t matter how much Wyatt likes Dilla or how many booming, vintage soul samples the trio stuffs into iii — the trio consistently sound like they’re taking a page from someone else’s songbook.
Opener “My Trigger,” with its playful plinks of keys and saucy, trilled come-ons, lives in the upper register but ends up suggesting the unappealing prospect of Gnarls Barkley cutting an ELO record. The cheery falseness of “The Heart of Me” sounds ready to be slapped into a Target commercial, as if its only sincere yearning is for royalty checks. “Back of the Car” tries to crossbreed the millennial, urban-pop likes of B2K and Ginuwine with swaggering alterna-pop, but the result sounds too shrill and studied; Miike Snow bloodlessly attempting fuse genres via instruction manual.
Elsewhere on the record, better ideas on paper manage to fall flat as well. The otherwise promising “Genghis Khan” sounds like a Gorillaz mock-child’s hand-game chant before straight-up jacking Missy Elliott’s “One Minute Man” on the bridge. And the crate-digging “Heart Is Full” (grabbing from Marlena Shaw’s 1967 cut of “Waiting for Charlie to Come Home”) just doesn’t know what rhythm it wants to ride. Ostensibly, everything about the iii lead single should work — that full-figured “WHA!” outburst, with its accompanying horns and slow-stomping percussion. But the song’s start-stop-start construction never delivers the payoff to justify the auditory whiplash it gives the listener.
This is not to call iii a total flop. If anything, it comes together like a well-constructed but tastelessly decorated house. The foundation — i.e., the beats and backing melodies — is its strongest feature, with each song boasting its own booming, play-me-on-the-air persona. It wants to achieve what other singles artists (Demi Lovato, Justin Bieber) do with hits-and-filler records that boast enough of the former to justify the existence of the latter. Instead, Miike Snow’s got the filler but only half-failed attempts at hits.
Actually, you could say that Miike Snow have spent the majority of their career not quite succeeding as being either a singles band or an album band, with their first record arguing very much the former and Happy to You closer to the latter. On iii, they seek a middle ground by tacking catchy hooks onto every actual single (“Genghis Khan,” “Heart Is Full”), but in trying to have it all, the finished product achieves neither. Without a Britney- or Bruno-sized personality out front, these talented producers can’t pull off what makes pop music so much fun: a touch of toxicity.