Mo Troper’s Natural Beauty Is a Masterclass in Sweet ‘n’ Sour Power-Pop

Portland singer-songwriter's third solo album mingles cynicism and sadness with memorable melodies and ornate arrangements

Music Reviews Mo Troper
Mo Troper’s Natural Beauty Is a Masterclass in Sweet ‘n’ Sour Power-Pop

The promotional materials that come with advance copies of Mo Troper’s new album Natural Beauty quote a conversation between Troper and Michael Heald, founder of a small publishing company in Portland, Oregon. “It’s a pretty funny song,” Heald tells Troper about “I Eat,” a three-minute slice of melancholy that opens Natural Beauty. “The melody is so gorgeous, but then you notice the lyrics…”

Now, I have no doubt Heald is an expert with words, having successfully navigated the challenging world of indie publishing. And certainly, all words are open to the interpretation of the person hearing or reading them.

But “I Eat” is not funny. Not at all. In fact, it’s a heartbreakingly plainspoken song about boredom, aimlessness, social comparison, depression—and binge-eating as a result of all the above. These themes are not couched in metaphor or obscured in any way: “I eat because I’m bored / Hungry for something more,” Troper sings early in the song. And later: “Out of hot air, hanging for my life / Watching as the world marches on by.”

Troper’s greatest strength on Natural Beauty—as it was on his first two solo albums, 2016’s Beloved and 2017’s Exposure & Response—is his reliable knack for crafting memorable melodies and delivering them via his skyscraping voice. Power-pop has always been a genre rife with criminally overlooked talents, and Troper fits snugly into that lineage.

But it’s the clarity of his writing, as heard on songs like “I Eat,” that jumps out from his third full-length, where nine of the 12 songs clock in under two and a half minutes. This collision of melody and brevity makes for some ultra-punchy moments, such as the quarter-life crisis anthem “Potential,” which crams urgent acoustic strumming, soaring Springsteen-isms and even a guitar solo into 90 seconds. Or “Almost Full Control,” a tune that lasts only two minutes but nonetheless gallops and zigzags like Canadian power-pop heroes The Flashing Lights. “All love ends up with someone feeling so alone,” Troper sings as a trumpet bleats in the background.

Loss and unrequited love are recurring themes on Natural Beauty. “Jas From Australia” details Troper’s first long-distance relationship using mostly those three words and an instrumental arrangement that grows in heft and complexity as the song goes along. Platonic relationships are fair game, too, as evidenced by the overt jealousy that powers “Your New Friend,” in which Troper seethes about an old pal’s new companion against a palette of strings, horns, oohs and aahs. Elsewhere, he takes aim at the indie music industry in “Business As Usual”—a lovely ballad built around a wheezing pump organ—and at his own hometown in “Lucky Devils,” which disguises scathing lyrics about gentrification, class and privilege as a happy-go-lucky pop song, handclaps and all.

The highlight of the album, though, is its second track, “Your Boy.” It begins with a guitar riff that belongs in the Jangle-Pop Hall of Fame, crunches satisfyingly in its chorus and generally glistens with toothy pep and lyrics that seem to delve into contented relationship dynamics (though who knows what’s bubbling below the surface). It’s the happy dog with a wagging tail on an album full of handsome but temperamental cats. And at just over two minutes long, it’s a perfect pop song, pure and simple. It also feels slightly out of character from a songwriter who has mastered the art of making cynicism, sarcasm and sadness sound lush, charming and candy-coated. Fortunately, there’s plenty of that on Natural Beauty, too.

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