I Feel Alive is a lonely record that is full of life.
Responding to a piece of art, created before a world-shaking event, while that world-shaking event is still taking place will inevitably alter any perception of that piece of art. TOPS’s new album I Feel Alive is the band’s fourth album and their best. The four-piece, originally formed in Montreal in the early 2010s, have whittled their sound down to a minimalist ideal of late 70s and early 80s soft rock, with hooks and licks that actually meet that standard. Lead singer and I Feel Alive cover star Jane Penny told Bandcamp that the new album is about “being out in the world as a free agent, but it’s also about human relationships; about falling in love in a deep way.” That may be true, but the more I listen to I Feel Alive and the longer we are all confined to our residences, the more I feel like the album is about being deeply alone and dreaming about real, physical, and emotional human connection.
Just look at Penny’s blank expression on the album cover — wide-eyed, emotionless, lost in space. It’s one that I’ve found on my own face in recent days. But the dream of connection is alive in Penny’s mind and in TOPS music; it resides there, idyllic and pristine, too good to be true. Any fuzz that was audible on 2017’s Sugar At the Gate has been shaved off in favour of the propulsive and catchy sleekness deployed on that album’s best song, “Petals”.
I Feel Alive is a whole album of “Petals”: fast tempos, dexterous Stratocaster shimmies, whispered verses, and catchy choruses. Despite the cleaner production, TOPS manages to sound loose here. This may have to do with adding keyboardist Marta Cikojevic to the mix after Sugar At The Gate was released, giving Penny more freedom to slither through the grooves and allowing the band to sound a little less militant. The exuberant opener “Direct Sunlight” is the perfect example of TOPS’s newfound fullness. It bounces into being as a low key, ABBA-indebted pop tune and ends with a spontaneous sounding Alice Coltrane-inspired swirl. Penny’s voice, by her own admission, has two modes. There is the wispy coo — her go-to module — which breezes through these songs as cirrus clouds move across a cool sky, but occasionally she goes full cumulonimbus. The shift is used sparingly but always effectively, like on “Ballads and Sad Movies”, a song confronting the numbness of unreciprocated feelings. Penny rises up from her daze to exclaim, “Listen, I just don’t know who I am anymore,” and we wake up as well. What we are waking up from is a barrage of soft, white disco bangers.
With the exception of “Ballads and Sad Movies” and “Take Down”, I Feel Alive does not slow down, pulling you into its comfort zone and never asking you to leave. This is in large part thanks to the crispness of Riley Fleck’s timekeeping. TOPS’s go-to mode is certainly understated and straddles the “chill” line, but if you get too distracted by the band’s unwillingness to challenge, you miss the fact that TOPS shred. David Carriere’s guitar playing is phenomenal across the entire record, whether he is creating texture or dextrously propelling a song forward like he does throughout the verses of “Pirouette”.
Like any good band, though, the best moments occur when everyone is firing on all cylinders. “I Feel Alive” captures the glow of early-80s synth-pop perfectly with its full group harmonies and an a-ha crib (the second Canadian pop song to do so this year). “Witching Hour” features one of Penny’s signature mode shifts, a subtle lead from Cikojevic, and proves TOPS are master popsmiths. On “Colder & Closer”, the album’s crown jewel, it’s hard to tell where the guitar begins and the synth ends; they blend perfectly, leading up to the whispery, vamping chorus. It’s the furthest the band strays away from that soft-rock mold and the EDM influence, heard in the swelling vocals and the wall of synth in the chorus, suits them well.
The fantasy that runs through I Feel Alive may have been about loving someone from afar, but given where we are, that distance appears even more vast than it would have if the record dropped in February. What doesn’t change is the fact that TOPS are among the most adept pop songwriters in the country. I Feel Alive is a lonely record that is full of life, just as we are. And when we can get close to each other again, TOPS will soundtrack our parties and we will fall in love in a deep way and that distance will disappear and we will remember who we are. We will feel alive too.