Post Malone Tries to Smile (Or Drink) Though His Pain On 'Austin' (2024)

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He once again combines unmitigated anguish with unambiguous pop plays

Post Malone has long threatened to make a guitar record. Early in his career, he expressed ambivalence toward the melancholic hip-hop that made him famous. He has Bob Dylan tattooed on his arm, and did a Nirvana cover set so good it earned Dave Grohl’s approval. Across four wildly successful, algorithm-swallowing LPs, he has wrangled Ozzy Ozbourne, Fleet Foxes and Father John Misty into his signature post-genre gumbo, equal parts mumble-rap and groan-rock, pickup-country and minivan-funk. The recipe works: he has sold a zillion albums and earned 10 Grammy nominations.

Guitars feature on every track of his fifth LP Austin, which takes its name after the one on Post’s birth certificate. This suggests a more naked release, with the honesty and vulnerability of the rock music he has long revered. Its first track makes good on this promise. Album opener “Don’t Understand” is an absolute disembowelment, its oblong chords creating a scaffolding across which Post stretches that gut-wrenching quiver of a voice. Plainspoken lines like, “I don’t understand why you like me so much / ‘Cause I don’t like myself” don’t read like much on paper, but his delivery sells it. His voice — capable of arena-rock roars and tender falsettos but more often wandering between these poles, seething and uncertain — has never sounded better or more purposeful than it does here. It shakes like a wounded animal that might still bite your hand off.

But there’s little else like that here. Even if Austin is Post’s guitar record, it’s not his rock record. The guitar emerges as adornment across a long stretch of unambiguous pop plays, which more often evoke Eighties touchpoints like Tears for Fears — or maybe just 1989 — than the millennial groan-rock that sometimes seems Post’s true calling. Tracks like “Too Cool To Die” and first single “Chemical” are pure seabreeze, all palm-muted guitars and sympathetic choirs cheering him toward the horizon. Many of the arrangements — like the pensive piano accompaniment of “Socialite,” or the slow-dance breakdown of “Overdrive” — take cues from contemporary Nashville hitmaking, packing feature-length melodrama into 3 minutes or less of schmaltz.

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Still, plenty of it works. The starburst hook of “Enough Is Enough” is endearingly Toto-esque, and “Novacandy” is a case study in charismatic self-destruction, containing some of the record’s best, bleakest lines (“Put on my old coat and found new drugs / I wanna thank young me for getting me f*cked up”). Post remains a largely shameless lyricist, but the album’s monomaniacal focus on alcohol and its aftereffects inspires the sort of gallows humor familiar to church undercrofts everywhere: “Mourning” is built around a central image of a drunk throwing his bottle at the sky because he’s mad at god for letting morning come. Almost every track finds Post in some tortured posture like this, singing cheerily into a bottle he’s doomed to finish. They’re largely fine songs, and clever, but lighter than Post seems to want them to be.

The immense self-loathing with which the record introduces itself finds no clear resolution by the end, despite many allusions on otherwise-peppy songs. The second person to whom many of these songs have been directed bails in the record’s final moments, unable or unwilling to serve as Post’s savior and redemption any longer. The record’s triumphantly spiteful response to this development, “Laugh It Off,” erupts at its close with skyscraping post-rock guitars and digitized Bonham drums, with Post howling over the noise. It’s nice to hear him finally match the intensity of the Austin’s first song, but it’s hard to buy the catharsis. Even on an album named after himself, he submits to precious little self-examination, burying every moment of clarity in layers of chintz and cheap thrills. He should give those Nirvana songs another listen.

Post Malone Tries to Smile (Or Drink) Though His Pain On 'Austin' (2024)
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