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2 December 2020

Yungblud’s Weird!: bland, indistinct pop-rock

The Doncaster musician has cultivated a fanbase around his celebration of nonconformity, but his music is unadventurous.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Yungblud fans hardly batted an eyelid when their leader descended on to the stage at the MTV Europe Music Awards in November wearing an all-white netball outfit and silver angel wings. The pop-punk musician, born Dominic Harrison, is known for his unconventional attire – and adored because of it. His get-up was, of course, completed with his trademark pink socks, an emblem adopted by his legion of hardcore fans, the Black Hearts Club, named for the tattoos that adorn Yungblud’s middle fingers. 

Over two EPs and a debut album, Harrison, who is 23 and hails from Doncaster, mingled bubblegum pop with punk-tinged rock. His look is eccentric, whether he is playing Reading and Leeds Festivals in a sheer black dress, or singing from a bathtub with spiked red hair and wearing a dog collar in the music video for “Strawberry Lipstick”, a Green Day-inspired, angst-ridden, party-rock track. He is wilder, more outspoken and far more exciting than his former flatmate Lewis Capaldi: aesthetically and spiritually, Yungblud sits at the intersection between Declan McKenna, Lady Gaga and the Sex Pistols. 

Gladly, his celebration of non-conformism is not only skin-deep: his lyrics reference mental health issues, sexual identity, drug use and domestic violence. And he has cultivated a following that reflects that: the Black Hearts Club are known for looking out for one another as much as for adoring their hero, building international friendships via group chats and reaching out to support those who post about their difficulties on Yungblud social media channels.

It’s a shame, then, that for all this public celebration of that which makes us different, Yungblud’s second album, Weird!, sounds so indistinct. On “Love Song” he sings about changing his mind about the possibilities of love, after a childhood of watching his parents fight endlessly. The sentiment is moving and universal, but musically it is rendered feebly. The emotional climax, with strummed acoustic guitars and twee strings, lacks conviction. 

[See also: Emily Bootle reviews Miley Cyrus’s Plastic Hearts]

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On the softer moments of electric guitar ditty “Mars”, he could almost be one-quarter of McFly, so familiar is the way he chews his lines, so conventional the harmony. But behind the song is yet another touching, purposeful story: Harrison sings about a transgender fan he met in Maryland, who was rejected by her parents but found solace in the Black Hearts Club community. Listen to its refrain – “Do you feel like you’re irrelevant?” – and you can easily imagine a sea of outcast teenagers waving their hands along in solidarity. But that spirit hasn’t seeped into the music itself. For an album entitled Weird!, this is a record notably short of much to be curious about.

The same problem emerges on “God Save Me, but don’t Drown Me Out”, an empowerment anthem gasping to reverberate around a stadium, and “The Freak Show”, which begins with quirky electronic programming but quickly reverts back to the safety of a drum-heavy pop track. It’s fun – the keys lend a jaunty bounce and a military snare adds verve – but the arrangement doesn’t have nearly the amount of intrigue as some of Harrison’s lyrics: “Faux plastic dolls/With their hands on their ribbons/Will strangle us all/And they’ll all be forgiven.” 

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Even Harrison’s gravelly vocal strain – which, when audible, is distinctive – is used sparingly. When it occasionally cuts through, as on the ballad “Teresa” when he sings of “The way life/taught us we were make believe”, there is more of a sense of the personality we see on social media, in interviews and on stage: of someone determined to speak their mind, someone who refuses to bend themselves to fit a norm. 

Notably, Harrison himself seems to rank his songs below the rest of what he does as an artist. “If you know Yungblud, the music is secondary,” he told the Guardian last month. “I don’t give a shit about hit records. All I care about is a culture, like the Stone Roses or Green Day had, where I stand on stage and we come together because we’re integral to each other’s lives. That’s what it’s about, connecting to people.”

The music industry has in recent years spewed out a number of artists who appeal to fans with their progressivism and embrace of identity politics. But over time some of these acts have come to be seen as disingenuous, using their politics as PR strategy rather than for moral good (such as Slowthai or Idles). Yungblud is the reverse. In everything that he does, he seems to genuinely care for his fans and their well-being, and the stories he tells in his songs are powerful. Instead it is his music – a form which has the potential to offer something truly revolutionary – that is lacking.

[See also: Ellen Peirson-Hagger on King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard’s 16th studio album]

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