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Review: EDM Titan Zedd’s Orchestral Expansion Lacks Direction on ‘True Colors’

SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: May 17, 2015
Label: Interscope

Blame it on the self-perpetuating myth of the “sophomore slump,” but massively successful artists have more to lose on their second effort than their debut. In the case of Russian-German DJ/producer Zedd (born Anton Zaslavski), however, the opposite seems to be true. Speaking to SPIN earlier this month about True Colors (the dense, orchestral follow-up to 2012’s Clarity), he emphasized the risky intention of the album’s notably drop-free, spaghetti Western-themed title track. “It was really important for me to make a statement with that song for people that don’t know about my past in classical music and rock music and acoustic instrumentation,” he said. “I was afraid of putting a song like this on my album before.”

Zedd’s musicianship has always been apparent in how easily his tracks can be stripped down; most notably, his piano-driven performance of “Clarity” on Letterman and his acoustic iTunes Sessions EP (pedal steel!). But “True Colors” is the first track of his that could pass for a “proper song” as it originally appears on his album. Besides lyrics like “I’m not afraid” and “I’ll show you my true colors,” the track’s roiling drums and church bells sound off as almost a challenge — perhaps to naysayers of EDM as a legitimate form of music, whom he’s addressed before. In a recent interview with The Guardian, and a tweet around the time of Clarity’s release, he emphasized focusing on the “M” in EDM.

Like his mentor Skrillex, Zaslavski has residual rock chops: He started out as a drummer in melodic metalheads Dioramic before taking on his more familiar namesake, and that backstory plays much more of a defining role on True Colors than Clarity, which was built around the traditional big-tent bangers’ dropstep-topline breakdown. Though Zedd hinted at his nearly two decades of playing the piano in the Daft Punk-reminiscent keyboard noodling on tracks like “Stache,” those moments always took a backseat to his turbo-charged bass hits.

On his new LP, he foregrounds them, as on opening track “Addicted to a Memory.” The slow-building piece features the rising all-female folk outfit Bahari, layering them over an acoustic guitar and gentle swishes to grinding complextro breaks and a manic arpeggio like the soundtrack to Treasure Mountain. Though borderline whiplash-inducing, it spotlights Zedd’s abilities more than what follows: his catchy but color-by-numbers Selena Gomez feature, “I Want You to Know.”

While it’s admirable that Zedd is making an active effort to avoid tried-and-true formulas of other, older superstars like Calvin Harris and David Guetta, sometimes it sounds like he can’t see the audience for the crowds. True Colors zigzags between the piano-led reckoning that is “Papercut” (featuring YouTube star Troye Sivan), chest-beating thumper “Bumblebee” (with Botnek), and the anthemic violin arrangements of “Daisy.” Though each song is single-minded in its pursuit of musicality — something Zaslavski reveled in without previous distractions, like recording with Lady Gaga while he was making Clarity — the album as a whole lacks any direction other than the ambition to be more than it winds up being.

He might look to peers like Madeon and Porter Robinson, whom Zaslavski told SPIN were his like-minded compatriots when they were first starting out. But while those two are less adventurous than Zedd, each has crafted a cohesive debut LP, a decisively non-jarring listening experience. They transport the listener completely to a different world (or Worlds, in Robinson’s case) even if some of the songs become filler in the process. On True Colors, each track tries to be a separate statement as Zedd tries to crash through his own, pre-existing glass ceiling — but the whole falls short of the sum of its parts.