Album Review: Alice Merton – S.I.D.E.S.

[Mom + Pop / Paper Plane; 2022]

A hit can last a lifetime, and that might just be the case for Alice Merton. Her 2016 breakthrough track “No Roots” has some 825 million streams to date, and that won’t likely slow down – especially if she keeps churning out tracks to latch new listeners in. The Berlin-based English-Canadian musician built off the success of “No Roots” on her 2019 debut album MINT, mining a fair few chunks of pop gold that would have no trouble wriggling into the heads of listeners. Her new album, S.I.D.E.S., keeps the fire burning, Merton showing no signs of letting up, despite the few years of lockdown between this and her debut.

Compared to MINT, S.I.D.E.S. fares that bit better at self-reflection and it sounds less like she’s singing for whimsical and fleeting emotions, but instead writing from more lived-in experiences. (Merton co-wrote and co-produced all the songs on the album.)

The fare is not unfamiliar though, and the album’s 15 tracks tell a sort of story of a breakup and breakdown of a relationship. “I don’t need you… Now I want my love back,” she asserts on the opening track, while at the other end of the record she’s singing with a relieved joy, “I’m seeing happy, I’m seeing clarity / I’m seeing all of the things that I used to be / What a long, long road it’s been.” The album is one where you can tell Merton is keen to lay out all the details, leaning into the maximalist style of many pop artists, but also embracing the creative freedom she has this time round (S.I.D.E.S. is released on her own Paper Plane Records Int. label as well as Mom + Pop).

The best moments of S.I.D.E.S. come in its opening streak of songs, where the energy is revved up with despair and regret. “I thought that you and me were the future,” she dismays on the jittery pulse of “Future”, while on the glossy charge of “Same Team” she declares “we’re not two sides of the same team anymore.” Opening track “Loveback” tempers its pace and force, folding in on itself in its grimy chorus before letting it all spill out in the final 30 seconds. Merton has a way of delivering a hook like it’s an essential life experience to hear; so easy do these tracks go down that many of the album’s best moments have you wondering how this song didn’t already exist.

Thankfully the pace does let up come the middle and latter third. This is especially so with the gentle toybox-like melodies on “Everything”, which shows Merton can excel when everything is dialled back. “Blurry” and Blindside” have a welcome playful tone about them, and the former even sounds like it’s holding back in leaning into this; the final minute or so could have been a moment to unwind and unravel the track a little, and an opportunity missed here will hopefully be picked up in a future remix. There’s little to fault with the production (and it’s certainly looser and less generic than last time round), but it would have been interesting to hear Merton colour outside the lines of the simple pop song structure here and there, riding out a groove or letting a moment of true calm emerge.

The tempered, pulled-back side is a little short-lived overall though. Even the songs expressing the joy of a fresh start and boasting a lighter air than those at the start of the album go for the all-out, big chorus route. On “Letting You Know”, over thundering drums and a wall of glistening strings and synths, she tellingly admits “it’s time I learned to release.” The summery bellow of final track “The Other Side” fares better, like Merton is ushering herself on the wind to a new place to exist. It’s light and carefree though, especially when compared to the supercharged Muse-like “Vertigo” (where, as on “No Roots”, Merton shows how she can mine out a hook by simply extending the syllable count of a single word) or the overcooked “Mania” (which sounds like a feverish early White Sea track that got lost in a hard drive after being worked to death in the studio).

The downfall of S.I.D.E.S. ultimately comes from it laying everything on the table. On the one hand it’s hard to blame Merton for offering up 15 tracks here and embracing her ability to do so (“There’s 15 songs on it because I love to take advantage of the creative freedom I have,” she explained in an interview), but equally some trimming at the edges would have let the album be a snappier listen. The short tracks on the latter half (which are more “interludes… almost like poems, they are much shorter than songs” according to Merton) are welcome to break up the flow and structure, but they might have stood out all the more if Merton culled a few of the surrounding songs. It’s hard to imagine “100 Stories” with its worthless chorus (“Tell me a hundred stories / Your hungry eyes speak to me”) or the creaky dud “Hero” being missed by anyone all that much.

Still, S.I.D.E.S. has enough hooks and vitality to make it worth your time. Tracks like “Same Team”, “Loveback”, and “Island” are just waiting to get stuck in your head for a day or two, and while they might not be quite as sticky as “No Roots”, they show once again that Merton isn’t just a one-hit wonder. That song may last her a lifetime, but the best moments from S.I.D.E.S. will last just as long too.