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The New Pleasant

Underground music has hit a quiet riot of politeness. Should we get nice or fight it?

Associate editor of and freelance writer Ruth Saxelby discusses the direction new music every month under the title Notes For Tomorrow.

At the back end of 2011, Popjustice’s Peter Robinson bemoaned the state of pop in The Guardian. His target was not the “LOLpop party hits” raging through the charts, however,but the markedly less hectic wares of Adele, Ed Sheeran and co. The New Boring, he said, was “a ballad-friendly tedial wave destroying everything in its path.” While mainstream pop has since got its equilibrium back - the lukewarm likes of Emeli Sandé and Olly Murs losing out in the UK charts to upbeat ditties by Disclosure and Justin Timberlake (even Taylor Swift’s cheered up some) - it seems The New Boring’s safe’n’beige spirit has trickled down to the underground, albeit in a mutated form. Welcome to The New Pleasant, currently streaming on - and out of - all your favourite online music outlets. 

The New Pleasant doesn’t favour genres, instead it’s a bubbling mesh of them. It is music made to be played through laptop speakers; soft and round enough not to distort, nor to stir a finger to the skip button. It is hold music for half-listening and a salve to digitally fried brains. It’s the polite R&B of LA duo Inc and the post-post-dubstep of Jake Hart, the latter just one of scores of nu-crooners adopting this contemporarily palatable sound. There’s the husky refrains of former Flume vocalist George Maple, the breathy pop of Brooklyn’s Empress Of, and the underground-gone-overground inoffensive soul of Rhye

The latter’s recent album ‘Woman’ has been universally pounced on for being “so easy to fall in love with” and a “paradise of loveliness”. Lead single The Fall is a lounge-y piano number that sways somewhat seductively but its gaze is blank. Listen a little closer and you’ll discover a familiar male perspective on love that’s as yawningly one-note as it’s ever been. “Don’t slip away my dear,” the chorus whines, and implicit is a plea for fixity: don’t change. The New Pleasant doesn’t want the boat to be rocked, it would rather lull you to a state of consensus. 

While music like this has always existed in some form or other, pleasant never used to hold such a desirable place in the underground. That was for the delicate ears and frailer constitutions of the watershed-guarded mainstream; for family-friendly radio playlists and guest-spots on Jonathan Ross. Instead the underground relished its outsider-ness; it was a place for experimentation and discourse shaped by resistance to homogeneity and an active desire to take music - and thinking - someplace new. But when “new media” became preferred media, the lines between the mainstream and the underground began to crumble. One of the biggest tragedies of that is the aged infrastructure of the music industry sinking into the rhetoric of the underground. Bands and producers who’ve barely recorded a note have managers, agents and PRs, while “radio-friendly” and “accessibility” have ousted experimentation as aspirational creative frameworks.  

While technology has played its part in the prevalence of The New Pleasant - anyone can knock up aural niceties without even getting off the sofa - a big part of why it’s being so lapped up is that more often than not a pleasant-sounding song is a rope to the listener drowning in a sea of music. There is just so much out there, the at-a-glance pleasant stuff gets a foot up: it’s bloggable, shareable and, yes, listenable for those couple of minutes. But after it fades what are we left with? Are we invigorated? Stretched? Reminded of some place outside our familiar experience? 

Thank goodness, then, for two albums released this week that provide an alternative to pleasant. The Knife both stretch ears and challenge social structures with ‘Shaking The Habitual’, their first album in seven years. It’s not easy listening and it’s not meant to be: The Knife offer new ways of listening and seeing, and we should embrace them. Then there’s former “prince of dubstep” James Blake who copped unfair flak when he left behind his CMYK past for a more mature, vocal-led palette. While he inspired that generation of nu-crooners, ‘Overgrown’ reveals an artist who has moved on; one whose committed to progression. There’s a fearlessness to this new record that feel genuinely thrilling; radical even, when you consider the playing field he now exists on (he’s major label now, not that he’s behaving like it). Listen up, underground: there’s more to life than nice.