Everyone loves a good summer song. A breezy, upbeat pop tune can brighten your day, set a mood, and take you back to your summer memories. But what about a summer we might not want to remember? “pop songs 2020,” the debut EP from indie duo BUMPER, is a short auditory vacation to a brighter, calmer plane of existence that proves pandemic-age pop can be both sweet and substantial.
BUMPER is an act born out of quarantine. The duo is made up of Michelle Zauner, also known as Japanese Breakfast, and Ryan Galloway of the chiptune rock trio Crying. To readers of The Argus, Zauner is known for performing at The University’s Spring Fling in 2019.
Although the two live within blocks of each other in Brooklyn, Zauner and Galloway recorded the entirety of “pop songs 2020” separately, sharing files back and forth as they built up the EP’s soundscape. The resultant music of “pop songs 2020” is a marriage between the styles of the two artists, combining the richness and sentimentality of Japanese Breakfast’s music with the chirpy electronica of Crying. Opening track “You Can Get It” eases the listener in with a smooth wash of sound, before giving way to bouncy rhythm, peppered with twinkling synths. Lyrically, the song is wistful and romantic, its breezy chorus asking “can’t you see?” to a seemingly oblivious love interest. Just as “You Can Get It” nears the end of its just-over-three-minute runtime, a warm guitar solo enters the fray, giving the song a final flourish and bringing its ethereal sound down to Earth.
The EP’s second track, “Black Light,” takes on a more mellow, subdued atmosphere, its undulating beat revealing a diverse array of electronic tones. The song’s midpoint is marked by a squealing synthesizer solo, before culminating with a soft, 80s-style fade out. While Zauner’s vocals on “You Can Get It” soar, calling out for love, her inflection on “Black Light” is more restrained, as she gently waxes poetic over a fellow night owl.
“Red Brick” brings the energy back up with the EP’s most full-throated pop chorus, Zauner’s bright vocals accompanied by a veritable chorus of synths. As Zauner sings “day by day, you give and take / on and on until there’s something,” in the chorus, it’s easy to relate to the feeling of daily drudgery. Since the beginning of lockdowns and quarantines in March, days can blend together, and the repetition of routine can drain one’s passion for work, whether it’s academics or an indie EP. At the same time, music can provide an escape from the gloomy monotony of quarantine, as can art, exercise, friendship, or simply a well-thought-out daily routine. Over the past six months, many have turned to these comforts while “searching for some sturdy ground,” as the opening lines of “Red Brick” say.
The final track on “pop songs 2020,” “Ballad 0,” brings the listener closer to the melancholy of reality. Its slower tempo and regretful lyrics make it more reminiscent of Zauner’s earlier work as Japanese Breakfast than anything else on the EP, but it is still filtered through a distinctly BUMPER lens. The song is still a dreamscape, but a more mellow and restrained one compared to the chipper sound of previous tracks. It is brisk and short, clocking in at hardly two and a half minutes. Its soundscape, far from the organic-sounding swirls of guitars and percussion that make up many Japanese Breakfast tracks, is fleshed out with electric piano and synthesized strings. Zauner’s voice, rather than raw and close, is filtered, as if coming to you over the radio. The song softly fades out, and the “pop songs 2020” experience comes to a gentle close.
Sonically, an easy point of comparison for BUMPER’s sound is the work of Kero Kero Bonito. The two acts both release video game-influenced indie pop, with shades of lo-fi, and contrast synthesizer tunes with a light-toned female vocalist. But Kero Kero Bonito’s work tends to carry a sense of detachment from reality, whether through kids show style optimism or mythic imagery. By contrast, Zauner’s lyricism is incisive and intimate, her work as Japanese Breakfast conjuring poetic images of mourning, sexuality, and self-reflection. With BUMPER, the same sense of raw subjectivity remains, even as the shimmering sound of the EP gives it a more polished veneer. “pop songs 2020” feels like a sonic dream, a musical power nap from the waking horrors of 2020. But just as the events of the day may crop up in a dream, so the sentiments of living through our current moment peek through the candy-colored gloss of the EP’s soundscape.
Much digital ink has been spilled by music writers over whether COVID-era pop music should aim to provide an escape from reality or reflect the harshness of the situation at hand. BUMPER proves that you can do both, and provide a sonic experience with its head in the clouds and its feet firmly planted on the ground, a perfect soundtrack for keeping your head up in between socially distanced study sessions and Zoom meetings.
Oscar Kim Bauman can be reached at email@example.com