Conan Gray is lonely. A global pandemic has him isolated at home, surrounded by the comforts of musical instruments and Taylor Swift and Lorde posters. The real-life embodiment of #quirky, he has his long hair down and a guitar in hand as he jokes around with his fans on an Instagram Live counting down the minutes till his debut album, “Kid Krow,” is released. One thing leads to another, and before long, he’s singing his album’s singles acoustically for the camera.
“I just needed company now / Yeah, I just needed someone around,” Conan Gray laments while strumming the chords of “Comfort Crowd,” the opener for “Kid Krow.” The song, released what seems like a century ago — September 2019 — has surprisingly captured the zeitgeist of the age of COVID-19 as a cry for companionship in the face of adversity.
Much like his idol Taylor Swift, Conan Gray excels in writing lyrics that are hauntingly relatable despite their specificity. Compare “All Too Well,” one of Swift’s best songs, to Conan’s gut-punch of a track, “Heather.” Both feature a misplaced article of clothing (Swift, a stolen scarf; Gray, a polyester sweater) to drive home the pain of an impossible relationship. On “Heather,” Gray even sneaks in a homage to Lorde by copying the eerie first three notes of “Still Sane,” a track from her 2013 album “Pure Heroine.”
Lorde’s impact on “Kid Krow” does not stop there. Conan Gray’s favorite Lorde song, “Ribs,” is notorious for its heavy sentimentality. Its analogous track on “Kid Krow” is “Little League,” a nostalgia trip with an anthemic production that betrays its darker themes. Gray, who never actually played any sports himself, would prefer you dance your sadness out rather than Lorde’s favored “weep alone in your bed” nostalgia, and what’s left in his wake is disturbingly brilliant.
Similarly, a clear line can be drawn between “Royals,” Lorde’s inescapable 2012 hit that helped usher in an era of minimalistic pop, and “Affluenza,” a gripping satire of rich kid syndrome. In “Affluenza,” the allure of money looms large, and Gray leans into a simultaneously gleeful and revolting persona, crowing, “They say money can’t buy you no love, but a diamond cheers you right up. Give me money or affluenza, affluenza, affluenza.”
Perhaps no track, though, shows off Gray’s ability to craft a seamless song as his breakout hit, “Maniac.” From the rapid-fire synths in the opening to the distorted cries of “some may say that I’m a maniac” in the chorus, “Maniac” is fun in a can. It’s totally over the top, complete with overdone rhyming and sing-along lyrics, but its charm is undeniable.
You have to give producer Daniel Nigro a lot of credit. The production on “Kid Krow” is leagues ahead of Gray’s debut single, “Idle Town,” where he used the sound of his fist on his desk as percussion. Nigro’s production leaves plenty of room for Gray’s lyrics to rise above the song while retaining the full effect of the instrumental. On “The Cut That Always Bleeds,” that manifests as a slowly swelling harmony that suddenly recedes, leaving Gray’s vocals hanging in the air. This repeats until the song finally relents, giving way to a steady, satisfying backbeat.
However, if you want really good production, listen to “Wish You Were Sober,” a jumble of strung-together sentence fragments with nothing but the bouncing, “1989”-esque production and Conan’s desperate wail tying them together. The final result is a crystal-clear ball of energy that’ll shoot you straight to your feet.
Gray closes out the album with “The Story,” which is quite literally a sequence of several heart-touching stories. As a thesis statement for the album, it moves from tragedy into something just a little bit better. “The Story” is a beacon of hope hidden below a layer of death and depression, and finally, right as the song reaches its climax, the entire album falls into place.
“I’m afraid that’s just the way the world works, but I think that it could work for you and me,” Gray sighs, “Just wait and see. It’s not the end of the story.” And with that, the album ends.
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