If you walked into a lab and were tasked with curating a star for the Generation Z crowd, you would walk out with Gus Dapperton. His entire persona is an amalgamation of alternative Tik Tok trends and poetic Tumblr blog posts. Dapperton’s multi-colored bowl cut adorns his sculpted facial structure – it’s as if you placed a strawberry smoothie-stained toupee onto the head of handsome Squidward.
His style does not conform to gender norms; he could wear a flowy button-down, flood pants, Nike Air Force 1s, mascara and nail polish, and he would still appear natural. If Dapperton was a font, he would be sans serif. If he were a film, he would be “The Florida Project.”
But who is Dapperton beneath his astutely color-coded canvas? That’s what his second studio album, “Orca,” attempts to discover. Dapperton stated in an Instagram post on the album’s release date that his newest project is “the product of pure and utter pain” — a pain that has worn on Dapperton’s bright exterior.
Despite well-meaning intentions, “Orca” is as wide as an ocean and as deep as a puddle. The musical landscape is gorgeous and enveloping, but the lyrics have the emotional depth of a piddling Tumblr post.
“Orca’s” rich soundscape conveys Dapperton’s capitulation to pain. Ditching his past reliance on hazy synths for amp-grounded guitars, “Orca’s” distinct sonic flare makes all the tracks on the album sound fuller and more alive than his previous bedroom pop material. If his previous release, “Where Polly People Go to Read” is a cocoon of closed-in sounds, “Orca” is a butterfly spreading its wings and soaring toward a blood-red sunset.
“First Aid” is where Dapperton truly takes flight. It’s a slow-building track with muted acoustics that barrel into a herd of harmonies, punchy percussion and beautiful bass. All these elements come to full fruition in the closing minute of the track as Dapperton pleads “First Aid” like he’s fighting his way through a war of sounds; a war in which he eventually comes out on top.
These elements make their way onto every track on “Orca.” “Post Humorous” follows a similar song structure to “First Aid,” but instead of opting for grimy rock, it chooses shimmering dance-pop. “Palms” is another impressive venture featuring the funkiest bass on the entire project. “Grim” is fantastic compositionally, with its pounding kicks perfectly complimenting Dapperton’s equally forceful croons.
It’s unfortunate that the bold musical grandiose of the instrumentation is not matched by Dapperton’s lyrics. That’s not to say that Dapperton doesn’t come across with good intentions. Each lyric feels like the artist is trying to dig toward the inner workings of his psyche, but he does so with a wooden spoon.
Lyrics such as “I’m too atheist to pray for my life” on the track “First Aid” come across like the ramblings of a teenager writing in their journal after reading Richard Dawkins for the first time. In fact, Dapperton may have done this — the track “Swan Song” sees the artist compare the Bible and the works of Dawkins, stating, “though books of God still seem to think that we start here,” and “though books of Dawkins seem to think that we are through.”
Exploring the impacts of dogmatic texts on one’s psyche is an intriguing concept to mull over, but Dapperton doesn’t delve into the topic. Most well-read individuals understand there is a holistic difference between the writings of God-fearing prophets and agnostic academics, but “Orca” provides no exploration on why that is the case.
On “Grim,” Dapperton attempts to give his own take on a Shakespearean soliloquy, stating that “I guess that’s the rub/I’ll never break your trust/But I hear the grim behind me/I can’t help but egg him on.” It’s another example of Dapperton shooting for the moon but landing on the mountain. Taking a modern lens on an old Shakespearean adage is a fascinating prototype for a song, but Dapperton never explores how his relationship disintegrated in the first place.
What holds the project together is Dapperton’s voice. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel – the oasis in the blistering desert. While his lyrics meander, Dapperton’s vocal inflection is pointed. He screams and squalls on “Post Humorous,” utilizing vocal breaks to convey a sense of anxiety. Similarly, on “First Aid,” Dapperton wails as reverb-infused guitars strum power chord after power chord, crafting a sound more like emo-rock than the dreamy bedroom pop Dapperton made his name on.
It’s a shame Dapperton’s lyrics don’t have that same cutting edge as his vocals. “Orca” has all the elements of an indie-rock classic, but fails to provide depth for the most important aspect: the storytelling. “Orca” is like if you bought a book with an intriguing summary, but the pages were left blank. It’s impossible to see if Dapperton completed his Instagram post’s mission statement with the provided lyrics. Grandiloquent verbiage can only take you so far. It’s clearly communicated that he is troubled, but as to how he ended up that way, we’ll never know.