Saturday, December 02, 2023

Poppy Robbie - Neighborhood Beautification Commission

This may seem like a terribly insulting way to begin a review of a great album, but my initial reaction to Poppy Robbie's Neighborhood Beautification Commission was astonishment over how amazing it was. Of course I knew Poppy Robbie was talented, and his 2019 EP The Troubled Times of Samuel Heck was quite good. But there's a huge distance between quite good and "Holy crap!", and nothing in Robbie's previous body of work could have prepared me for the bomb he has dropped with this proper debut album. It makes sense, though: a few of these songs have been residing in Robbie's head for nearly two decades. Sooner or later, they were going to have to move out or at least start paying rent. As this album came together, Robbie had the luxury of drawing from some of his best material. And after all this time, he has clearly developed a strong sense of who he is as a songwriter. 

Encompassing songs he has written in various stages of his adult life, Neighborhood Beautification Commission is Poppy Robbie's magnum opus. And it's that rarest thing in the world of popular music: not just a collection of songs, but a true album. While not quite a concept record, Neighborhood Beautification Commission paints a vivid picture of American suburbanites living lives that seem ideal on the surface yet prove unfulfilling and disillusioning deep down. In these songs, people cope with shitty jobs, unhappy marriages, cyclical heartbreak, and abandoned dreams. They yearn for escape from who they are, where they are, and what they are. They can't get out of their own heads even as they can hear the clock ticking. It's as if their lives are collecting dust. Of course a guy named Poppy Robbie is going to know his way around a tuneful melody and a stellar hook. But where he really shines here is as a lyricist. These are poignant and deeply profound songs, and even oldies-but-goodies like "Heartbreak Scenario" and "(Still Bored) On The Weekend" feel weightier in their present arrangements. Musically, the album belongs to no real genre at all. Influences range from indie rock to jangle pop to folk to rootsy rock 'n' roll to new wave & power pop, and yet it all sounds like Poppy Robbie (thankfully "Eclectic Robbie," "Boldly Genre-Defying Robbie," and "Hard To Pin Down Robbie" aren't that catchy, so the nom de plume stays). 

While the beauty of this record is the way all the songs flow together, certainly there are tracks that stand out. "Heartbreak Scenario" is like that old friend that I'm always happy to catch up with, but for some reason I'm feeling the devastation in the lyrics more deeply than I ever have before. "Distracted" cuts just as deep and just might be one of the catchiest songs of all-time. "Museum Of Dust" is haunting yet absolutely riveting. That vocal is something else: I swear Robbie found a way to get his 70-year-old self to record it and send it back via time travel email (such a thing will surely exist in 30 years, right?). "Robert Pollard Trading Card Collection" is, for me, the highlight and centerpiece of the album. It puts a more hopeful spin on some of the themes of the album, pondering what a great blessing it was for the universe that a young baseball player from Ohio was destined to do something else with his life. "Dreams don't matter if you don't make the time," Robbie sings, and that could be an admonishment or an inspiration depending on how you look at it. It kind of gives me chills to think that all of us could have been — or could still be — something other than what we are now. I'd be lying if I said this song hasn't nudged me to revisit certain writing ambitions which have been dying on the backburner for years. 

While I enjoy music every day, it's rare that I come across a record and find myself feeling blessed that it's now part of my life. That's how I feel about Neighborhood Beautification Commission. In a totally non-pretentious way, it's a freaking work of art. It really needs to exist on vinyl, so I'm crossing my fingers for some swell record label to make that happen. Man, Poppy Robbie had this kind of talent and kept it a secret for all these years? Well now the cat's out of the bag, and the fans will be begging for more. Hopefully I won't have to wait until The Koopas In Reverse is reissued on 8-track to review his music again. "How did you go from that to this?" Robbie sings on "Robert Pollard Trading Card Collection." Many of us, with great admiration, are asking the same question of him.

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