The path to pop stardom is hardly a science, but if one were seeking advice, most would likely point the way to dance training and voice lessons, preferably in a major city housing the kind of connections, collaborators and cultural events that are needed for performers with the greatest of ambitions. If you are already an adult and are not well on your way, chances are it’s already too late.
Someone like Diamond Rings’ John O couldn’t be further from this mold, growing up in the quiet Toronto suburbs without reasonable access to the artistic world that would fuel a young creative mind, not even seriously pursuing music until he was an adult well into art school. Despite this unlikely path, Diamond Rings is now releasing a second full-length album, Free Dimensional, and John O’s sight is set beyond the indie scene from which he began to bigger stages, brighter lights, larger crowds and maybe even backup dancers and stage props.
Even on Diamond Rings’ first album, Special Affections, it was clear that this was not simply another bedroom synthpop project content with crowds of stone-faced hipsters in small clubs. John O managed to turn those tiny shows into something glamorous, notable as much for his glittery wardrobe and choreographed dance moves as the emotionally honest set of dancefloor anthems that he was performing. An eventual stint touring much larger venues in support of pop princess Robyn gave Diamond Rings a taste of a different musical world where his ideas could be fleshed out and probably sealed the fate of what he is now offering us with Free Dimensional.
The ambition and fearlessness that Diamond Rings represents, both in his music and in his career, makes Free Dimensional an album to root for. Unfortunately, the album has several notable miscues and the listener’s expectations will greatly affect how the album will resonate. Those of us hoping for Diamond Rings to live up to the promise shown on Special Affections and deliver a pop album that deserves to reach audiences far and wide might be a little disappointed. But, it is easy to imagine new listeners being drawn into universal themes and wall-to-wall hooks. Yeah, when compared to the choices that pop music fans currently have, Free Dimensional looks pretty good when standing next to the competition.
One aspect likely to help Diamond Rings widen its audience is the fact that pop music relies more on great singles than great albums, and the high points of Free Dimensional deliver. First single “I’m Just Me” may seem like it is riding on Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” coattails, but anthems encouraging self-confidence and individuality is hardly a new concept and something that young people can’t hear enough, particularly in the world of pop. And where Diamond Rings excels is in the song’s confessions, where John O confidently displays his past personal struggles with his sexuality and his identity, all delivered on a heavier, rock-indebted sonic canvas. Even better is “Runaway Love,” one of the other guitar rock-based tracks on the album. The tune could be mistaken for The Strokes if you squint your ears the right way, and the lyrics of reckless romance easily draw the audience further in. Plus, without “Runaway Love,” it might go unnoticed that John O is more than just a synth artist, with a knack for writing a memorable guitar lick as well.
With these two anchoring the album, there is little pressure on the rest of the collection to shine as brightly, working more to showcase the artist’s range. With producer Damian Taylor (Robyn, Bjork), the songs manage to brush on many cornerstones of the pop world, from New Wave on “All The Time” to the R&B elements of “Put Me On” and even a more adult-sounding pop-rock number on “Stand My Ground.” Unfortunately, Diamond Rings takes this versatility too far, and most of the album’s questionable moments come from ill-advised decisions.
On “Hand Over My Heart,” the opening synth effect evokes images of ‘80s crime television shows, missing nostalgia but really just coming off as dated. But when John O reveals the vocal melody of the verse, the song proves to have its roots more firmly in mall pop, getting even worse with the cringe-inducing chorus that you can easily imagine being acted out on stage with hyper-literal hand motions that make use of the repetition of the song’s title. And, when the song begins to near its conclusion, the listener is in for another surprise when things get stranger and John O decides to deliver an unexpected rap verse. One of the hardest tasks to pull of in a song is the surprise rap verse, and the sheer existence of this not just on this song, but on two other occasions later in the album, will lead listeners through a full spectrum of reactions, from amusement to confusion. Some might even respect the audacity to even attempt unexpected rap elements, and it has to be noted that it harks back to a very specific time and place where rap was still a pretty new art form and its limitations were still be tested. And, while one can appreciate the good humor, there should be some realization that unannounced raps in non-hip-hop-related songs by people who aren’t particularly memorable rappers—well, that genre didn’t take off for a reason. The result of these raps are that three of the album’s 10 songs will find themselves skipped by many on repeat listens.
The final of the rap-enhanced numbers, “Day & Night,” closes out Free Dimensional on a disturbing note, feeling lobotomized in its simplicity and copping its chorus from a children’s playground chant. Add to it the rap verse when John O drops an F-bomb that gets bleeped out, the layers of winking become so thick that the album’s many highlights seem like a distant memory. But, what is most concerning about “Day & Night” is that it is the album’s closest representation to what you might hear on a pop radio station. Critics are not going to want Diamond Rings to ever lower himself to the level that the majority of his competition makes a living on, and even on “Day & Night,” the intention is more likely playfulness than an attempt at cheap success. There is much indication on Free Dimensional that Diamond Rings can achieve his professional goals while sticking to his guns as an artist. Sure, he might not be playing arenas just yet, but the general focus and fulfillment of personal goals on the album is admirable, and the pop landscape is now a little stronger because of it.