Selena Gomez‘s singles usually sound a bit out-of-time, mining plaintive pop melodies in the Britney/teen-pop idol tradition over lithe but unassuming instrumentals, instead of turning to herky-jerky, trap-ified flows or other forms of musical mask-play. Restraint has always been operative in her music, and that luxury is afforded to her by the team of industry people she surrounds herself with, who help her craft semi-muted pop records, with a limited margin for outright error. Gomez has had 7 top 40 singles since 2013, three of them from last year; she’s still learning how to make her cautiousness her deadliest weapon.
If “Bad Liar,” her first new solo single in a year, is tied to any pre-existing sound in recent pop music, it is the spare, fragile, witty-playful architecture of “Royals.” It is almost as if, just as Lorde is adopting Antonoff-ian walls of sound and abandoning her old dynamic range to appeal to the dance floor, Gomez has stepped in to mine the New Zealand pop star’s old appeal. But, really, “Bad Liar” has its own lustre; it’s too intimate and jam-packed a musical event to give anyone space or time to consider the arithmetic that led to it. It boils over with joy and irreverence to match its lyrics; tongue-twisting lines like “If you want you can rent that place/Call me an amenity/Even if it’s in my dreams” become musical butterflies in her stomach.
Gomez’s voice sounds controlled and pristine in the mix; the producers have limited and contained it, rather than beefing it up with an excess of reverb and alien pitch contouring. It’s exactly in the right space on the record to make feel you’re listening to her across the table at a coffee shop. The technique here is almost the inverse of the approach on Gomez’s big radio hit of the moment, the Kygo collaboration “It Ain’t Me.” That song, just like the Bob Dylan song it shares its anchoring phrase with, is based around an acoustic guitar and aims to create the illusion of intimacy at first, before becoming dizzyingly busy, building Selena’s voice into a choir and then rending it into weird slivers. On “Bad Liar,” on the other hand, everything is cleared out of the way in the production so that she can go into conversational, syllable-crammed detail without the record going top-heavy.
There are bad ideas in pop music along the lines of Katy Perry leaning into oblique, carnal sexual metaphors and interpolating Migos, but then there are charming weird-bad ideas, like Selena Gomez singing over a protracted sample of the “Psycho Killer” bass line about “the battle of Troy.” It’s the latter kind of concept, harebrained but ultimately brilliant, that makes me excited about listening to pop music in a Top 40 landscape where it’s central to business for stars to redefine themselves, in some combination of visuals, sonics and stylistic flourishes, with every new release.
People are saying “Bad Liar” is about the Weeknd, who may have confessed himself to her by a dumpster what seems like so many months ago now. But luckily, the song doesn’t sound like him, which means it doesn’t sound like everything else on the radio. “Bad Liar” mostly just sounds like itself, and there’s no higher compliment to pay it.