Let’s be honest: the typical Bastille listener is not going to read this review. We don’t look to this London synth-pop group for musical innovation or critical merit. Rather, Bastille’s biggest strength is its ability to craft songs that are both danceable and tinged with a hint of existential dread, creating the perfect atmosphere for listeners to simultaneously channel and escape from such a feeling. Consequently, given that today’s young adults are the first generation to have grown up with the fear and anxiety promoted by ubiquitous social and news media, it’s no surprise that Bastille has been able to use this formula to become one of the most popular bands of the 2010s.
Bastille’s 2013 debut “Bad Blood” was riddled with stories of ancient history and mythology, making for an easy listen that invoked an almost romantic flavor of despair. In 2016 the band returned with “Wild World,” a sprawling double album that, while bloated with filler and weakly tied together by a common thread of socio-political anxiety, ultimately showcased an eager band willing to try new sounds and explore a variety of directions. Now, with the release of “Doom Days,” Bastille seem to be stuck on autopilot, handcuffed by the mainstream success of its recent collaboration with Marshmello and seemingly unwilling to stray from the bare skeleton of its formula.
Frontman Dan Smith has pitched his band’s third album as somewhat of a concept album. The story supposedly follows a night of partying in the middle of the apocalypse, beginning at “Quarter Past Midnight” and staying out past “4AM.” On paper, this on-the-nose contextualization reveals a band hyper-aware of its role in music, and you have to respect a group of artists that plays to their strengths. The problem with “Doom Days” is that Bastille seems to have forgotten that playing to your strengths and taking risks are not mutually exclusive, and the result is a collection of almost entirely uninteresting songs.
Lead single “Quarter Past Midnight” serves well as the opener of a record about escapism and seizing the moment, but without any standout musical elements or a chorus easy enough to sing along to, it’s a track that will likely be forgotten quickly. “Bad Decisions” and “The Waves” follow, exhibiting a complete lack of subtlety both sonically and lyrically as Dan Smith laments the bad decisions people are prone to make as they “get carried away” and “caught up in the waves” of a night out. As the rest of the record plays out, tracks like “Million Pieces” and “Nocturnal Creatures” throw in EDM instrumentation with a lack of commitment that paints Bastille as timid for the first time in the band’s career.
These tracks are included in the album’s seven or so songs that match the moody, energetic and carpe diem tone of “Wild World”’s forgettable territory. However, while Bastille’s second album took the time to balance this filler with an equal amount of bolder efforts, the far shorter runtime of “Doom Days” yields just a few highlights of confidence and experiment. “Divide” harkens back to the band’s early ballads with some well-positioned production flourishes, including artificial yet tastefully vocals flying subtly around the background before Bastille’s signature harmonies usher in the climax. “4AM” features similarly wonderful and peculiar background vocal effects while Dan Smith exhibits a rare restraint in his singing. As the song’s components build upon each other, we arrive at the final minute blown away by a saxophone section creeping to centerstage. Structurally, it resembles the “Wild World” track “Glory,” the string section of which spends three-quarters of the runtime hiding in the background before slipping forward to accentuate the final chorus. Sonically, it resembles the beauty of Bon Iver’s “22, A Million.”
The most noteworthy moment here is the title track. Opening with a pulsing acoustic and jittering vocal cuts, the song builds up with a harmonized chorus and chanted verses as an 808 sets a nervous tempo. Progressing at a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pace, the track introduces cinematic plucked strings, a dramatic organ synth and starkly cynical lyrics before blossoming into an intense EDM finale. Somehow, Bastille blends and sequences these sounds seamlessly in just two minutes and eighteen seconds, resulting in an altogether unique musical experience that is all the better for being so urgently short-lived.
Closing with “Joy,” surely the happiest but most generic Bastille song, “Doom Days” clocks in with no more than three moments outside of the band’s comfort zone. The rest is a group delivering the bare minimum required for what can be considered its successful formula. And while fans may be content with this for now, history says that artists on autopilot can only stay relevant for so long.