Fake It Flowers is a promising debut LP that nonetheless sees beabadoobee remain frustratingly on the cusp of greatness.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Disclaimer: this review was made possible thanks to a stream link provided by the artist’s record label, Dirty Hit.
Perhaps the most poisonous of all chalices for a buzzed-about artist is the debut LP. Whether you’ve been slowly building that acclaim and anticipation over the course of ruthless grinding years, or you’ve been fast-tracked to the verge of stardom in just a few months, you’re expected to make good on all that hype and attention foisted upon you with one major definitive statement. The big mythmaking debut album that cements your reputation and justifies the faith everyone has put in you. Blow it, even by just making something middling, and those same writers who were championing you as the Next Big Thing will turn on you like ravenous wolves, as the Best New Musics get replaced by smug snarky tear-downs that can torpedo fledgling careers.
But, of course, even getting it right and making that unfuckwithable debut can be its own death sentence as every work afterwards gets invariably compared to that first shot, often doing an artist’s career a disservice. It’s a lose-lose game, in all honesty, especially in the fast-paced dog-eat-dog world of modern music consumption. In some respects, I’m more intrigued nowadays by the artists whose debuts are just solid but demonstrate a potential for what might come later. The ones who are almost there, currently have those moments of transcendent brilliance, and if they keep working at it then the next go-around is gonna be where everything consistently clicks together. Stranger in the Alps is a good album but I was more excited by the possibility of the next record Phoebe Bridgers would make, an investment that would pay off with this year’s Punisher.
So, with that context, I say this completely sincerely and as wholly intended compliment with no backhand: beabadoobee’s official debut LP, Fake It Flowers, is good with moments of excellence but I am more excited by the album she clearly has in her down the line than the one she’s served up right now.
For almost a year, beabadoobee (real name: Bea Kristi) has been talking up her first full-length as the culmination of a whirlwind career so far. A Filipino-born immigrant who grew up equally romanticising Lush, Pavement, Original Filipino Music, and Kimya Dawson’s Juno soundtrack; the very first song she ever wrote on a guitar (an instrument she only picked up three years ago) had the good fortune to go viral not once (upon its release in 2017) but twice (when Canadian emo rapper Powfu sampled “Coffee” on his TikTok hit “death bed” late last year). From there, record labels came knocking, the NME anointed her as a Next Big Thing, BRIT Award nominations racked up, and opener slots on major US and UK tours rose that profile to the brink of bubbling over. All the while, Bea kept releasing new EPs that saw her songwriting abilities grow and her sound shift with each new collection, going from lo-fi acoustic folk on Patched Up to dreamy shoegaze on Loveworm and finally a more pop-leaning take on the 90s alt-rock Bea will gladly deep-dive chat about during interviews with Space Cadet.
Even if “Coffee”’s surprise second-life didn’t make Flowers function as a grand finale for beabadoobee mk. 1, the album sonically realises that pitch. The pop-adjacent 90s revivalist slacker rock of Space Cadet is all over the album’s excellent opening trio of shots – “Worth It,” “Dye It Red,” and especially the magnificent “Care” – the loose shoegaze shuffles of “Further Away” and “Horen Sarrison” call back to Loveworm; whilst Patched Up throwback “How Was Your Day?” is nothing but Bea, her acoustic, and about fourteen-hundred layers of muffled lo-fi static that makes listening to it akin to hearing a piercing answering machine at the bottom of a well. New avenues for future Bea are also marked throughout the record. “Charlie Brown” is the heaviest song she’s yet recorded with chugging minor-key guitars and a chorus built around a 90s emo desperation scream; humorously it’s more emo than the Jimmy Eat World Clarity homage “Emo Song” that follows it. Electronics sparkle and burble throughout to provide welcome dreamy texture on tracks like “Emo” and the affecting interlude “Back to Mars,” whilst there’s a slight post-Britpop vibe to the recurring presence of strings which, though not always being essential in songs like “Sorry,” at least manage to avoid the overblown pomposity of such comparisons.
Lyrically, Bea’s growth over the past few years is really showing. She continues to have moments of disarming youthful crassness – “kiss my ass, you don’t know jack” very memorably kicks off “Dye” for just one example – whose refreshingly effective feminine frankness recalls those classic Alanis Morrissette and Courtney Love records; the latter comparison I also invoke because the twice-false-start of closer “Yoshimi, Forest, Magdalene” keeps giving me major Hole “Rock Star” vibes. But whereas on prior EPs she would over-rely on certain turns of phrase across multiple songs (Space Cadet especially uses every possible permutation of “pretty shit” one can cram into five tracks) and lean back on that project’s crafted persona for detachment, here she finds more variety in her phrasing and allows herself to be more open lyrically. Despite the often-gleaming production, Fake It Flowers can be a heavy record, tackling pretty unromantically infidelity (“Worth It”), self-harm and self-destruction (“Charlie Brown” and “Together”), and deep-seated lingering trauma around men (“Emo Song”) often with just a few carefully-chosen lines that stick out instantly (“You are the sun that I need for my mental state” on “Horen Sarrison” being an especial highlight).
When Flowers clicks, it’s a damn great record, one which slides perfectly into that same turn of the millennium revival/remix that Dirty Hit artists have been expertly spearheading over the past few years whilst retaining a unique catharsis of its own. The problem is that it only properly clicks about half the time. There’s a pretty heavy drop off in quality after the halfway point as Side B proceeds to dump all of the meandering low-tempo numbers one after another in a manner which kills the momentum. None of those songs are bad, but they have the same issue I had with Soccer Mommy’s deeply disappointing color theory in that, whilst they certainly sound exactly like vintage 90s dream-pop shoegaze, they lack the distinctive evolving melodies of their inspirations so listening to them, even with the occasional excellent lyric, is kind of a slog where each song feels much longer than its actual length and nothing sticks out.
The production does not help the quality sag, either, to be honest. I’m of two minds with it because I absolutely get the intention here. The vast majority of the mixes are heavily compressed with select embellishments or overdubs getting to stand apart from the crushing crowding, and in general the album is brickwalled to hell and back especially during the choruses, just like the 90s records that inspired Bea in the first place. Sometimes, this works a treat and doesn’t necessarily mean a complete lack of dynamics – those burbling electronics floating around “Emo Song” are beautifully spacey, “Care” punches through speakers and headphones exactly like the best 90s radio singles, and “Yoshimi”’s one-take spontaneous force adds an additional layer of rippage.
But equally, it can also reduce a lot of songs to mush or cause entirely the wrong elements to overpower the mix and detract from the intended effect. The kick drum on “Worth It” sucks up the entire low-end, often making the bass almost inaudible and the constant kicks can wear on the brain. The moment when “Sorry” should explode in headphones doesn’t achieve the necessary lift-off due to a lack of range. And I personally still cannot properly appreciate “How Was Your Day?” because whatever post-production work was done on that initial four-track cassette recording has created a grating harshness to the guitar and certain vocal notes I struggle to get through.
And so we go back to my initial assessment: I am more excited by the album Bea is going to make after Fake It Flowers than by Fake It Flowers itself. I think it is a very solid record whose highs scratch exactly the kind of sonically shiny, lyrically arresting, female-led rock music my out-of-time queer 90s alt-pop girl arse cannot get enough of. It certainly demonstrates how far Bea has come as a songwriter, lyricist, and performer – vocally, she’s nailing the disaffected slacker delivery of Pavement with aplomb but the times when she breaks into a dreamier higher register have the same captivating airiness of Miki Berenyi – in just three short years. But there’s a real gulf between the half of the album that’s bloody great and the half of the album that’s just sorta there, the kind that betrays an artist still in the process of coming into their own who can’t consistently keep the pieces together just yet, and the iffy blunt-force production does not do that gulf any favours.
So, today, greatness remains somewhat frustratingly out of beabadoobee’s reach. But she’s getting there, slowly but surely. That’s why I’m excited for what comes next. Because the highs of Fake It Flowers easily surpass the already-great highs of her prior EPs, so imagine how amazing the album by Bea of three years from now with all that additional experience may end up being. Not every debut needs to be the unimpeachable classic.