David Byrne makes a thoughtful argument in the first few pages of his book How Music Works: trends in popular music are direct responses to the environment that music is played and performed in. Hymns were written for organ because the instrument echoes against cavernous church walls; classical composers made ornate, intricate pieces because their music debuted in concert halls filled with quiet and attentive listeners.
Even the Talking Heads adjusted their music in response to the loud and rowdy CBGB crowd. Assuming this hypothesis is right, where does that leave us now? How have songwriters adjusted to the current arena—an audience that listens while scrolling through Instagram, who never felt the scarcity of a music library due to the limitless options of streaming?
There’s a very specific style of songwriting, with origins in Elliott Smith and Bright Eyes but championed by Phoebe Bridgers, that has become increasingly popular. Part word association poem, part therapeutic confessional, the lyrics scroll by with the calculated randomness of a social media algorithm. It both emblemizes the sheer overload of the 21st century while attempting to process it in real time. “Love it If We Made It” by The 1975, Bo Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling,” Phoebe’s “Kyoto,” all of these songs share that style, and they have intensely connected young listeners.
Christian Lee Hutson is a practitioner of the social media scroll-style of writing, and his second album Quitters employs this method on nearly every song. Nothing about Quitters feels innately modern or driven by social media, and yet it feels like the record couldn’t exist without it. Hutson combines broad emotional generalities (“I don’t think this is working” or “I am gonna be okay someday”), one-line anecdotes, a host of proper nouns (“Hummingbirds,” “Docweiler Beach,” “Tiny Dancer”), and extractions of the everyday (“Are they siblings? Are they dating? Is the game we’re playing”). The result is the lyrical equivalent of a Twitter feed—jumping from overshares to post-ironic memes in millimeters.
He relies heavily on juxtaposition, and much like his mentor and album producer Phoebe Bridgers, the songs blur the line between irony and unflinching sincerity, the nostalgia of childhood and inevitable loss of innocence. For the most part, it works well enough, especially on album opener “Strawberry Lemonade” and single “Rubberneckers.” Co-written with Alex Lahey, “Rubberneckers” is dynamic and catchy, easily the standout track. Hutson offers enough sadly self-aware liners throughout the record to make the whole thing resonate of emotion, even if it can feel a bit hallow.
Counterintuitive to the style of CLH’s lyrics, the album’s instrumentals often stick out as its vulnerable moments. The darker tones and dissonance as “Strawberry Lemonade” fades out feel like Hutson genuinely reckons with his sense of loss. The quiet strums and guitar noodling on “State Bird” reach greater climactic highs on than the words ever do. Hutson has a soft and pillowy voice, perfectly suited for the confessional music he makes. That said, the range of the album is a bit narrow and monotonous; if every song sounds like a deep dark secret, none of them really stick out as true. When he steps away from the prettiness, like on “Blank Check,” CLH’s songwriting takes a bit more shape.
Quitters builds a web out of memories and moments that most closely resembles, well, the Web. Maybe Hutson’s reliance on this associative style is an overreaction, a direct response to the lack of shared spaces for music due to the pandemic. This is a social media style album for a social media world. But social media is saturating enough. It’s not the association game that’s most powerful here, but the occasional moments when Hutson’s voice overcomes it.
Quitters is out now.