It's hard to argue The Chainsmokers haven't been riding high on the success of singles "Don't Let Me Down," "Closer" and "Paris" since 2016. But in 2018, the duo of Drew Taggart and Alex Pall have had a more difficult time reaching the peaks of the aforementioned chart and radio hits.

In a recent interview with Billboard, The Chainsmokers and label execs from Columbia Records and Disruptor Records, outlined a new approach to achieving chart success: create a gradual “waterfall” of music by releasing one song a month, gradually building to an end-of-year 12-track album. Ideally, this would lead to fans becoming invested in the continuing album, but despite The Chainsmokers’ increased ambition in both songwriting and release methods, reactions have been a mixed bag thus far. Critics haven’t taken kindly to their change in sound (though critics have never been big fans), but even the general public hasn’t had the same reaction that they did to the duo’s earlier work.

The lack of reaction is not for lack of trying—the expanded instrumentation includes castanets in “Sick Boy”, horn loops in “You Owe Me” and string synths in “Everybody Hates Me.” All of the songs aim for a darkness and scope unheard of from the group who made “Closer.” Yet none of these songs have connected with audiences in nearly the same way that “Closer”, “Roses”, or Memories… Do Not Open lead single “Paris” did.  The most successful song from this era is easily “Sick Boy”, still holding steady on the global Spotify chart, though it lasted less than a month in America. Follow-up “You Owe Me” was the first warning sign once the novelty of new Chainsmokers wore off, statistically more in line with MDNO opener “The One”  than “Closer” follow-up “All We Know.”

Meanwhile, “Sick Boy” has a terrific 142 million (and growing) views on YouTube, but when “You Owe Me” has 36 million despite only being there for a month less, and “Everybody Hates Me”, despite picking up on radio, has currently stalled out at just under 5 million, The Chainsmokers’ album plan comes into question. (As of press time, “Sick Boy”, at #100, currently sits under #66 “Something Just Like This” on the KWORB YouTube charts.) For contrast, “Sick Boy” managed roughly 18 million views in its first week. These aren’t bad numbers, but to a group as world-conquering and Ultra-Music-Festival-headlining as The Chainsmokers, it means something’s up.

The idea of a-song-a-month is promising in the right hands but ideally would work best if the songs had any cohesive theme, which these songs lack. “Sick Boy” is a fumbling attempt at social commentary, with lines about the “east side of America” and “west side of America” that never lead up to anything beyond the plight of the misunderstood “sick boy.” The other singles are more introspective, especially “Everybody Hates Me," but despite some lyrical repetition (compare “I know I'm not losing/But I'm losing my mind” on “You Owe Me” to “I’m not trying to be like ‘poor me, I made it’” on “Everybody Hates Me) the only thing really tying together the singles released so far is that they’re all melodramatic, unnecessarily confrontational, and self-absorbed.

Making records with Halsey and Chris Martin gave The Chainsmokers success, but Taggart doesn’t yet have the star power as his collaborators. Tagart insists that “everyone knows what I look like/not even one of them knows me,” and he’s right that while plenty of people know who The Chainsmokers are, there’s been no real reason to get invested into Taggart’s psyche, and that hasn’t changed with these songs. It’s not that “Everybody Hates” him, it’s that not enough people want to follow the trials and tribulations of a Chainsmoker month by month.

There is precedence to the waterfall release plan, set by the likes of Bebe Rexha, John Mayer, Owl City, and even Justin Bieber in 2013, but only Rexha was able to score a genuine hit with “Meant To Be,” which currently rests at #2 on the Hot 100. That only reinforces how The Chainsmokers were never in surefire territory, and they deserve credit for taking a genuine risk where their previous work was defined by its adherence to a single formula. Regardless, as their ambitious but misguided singles continue to underperform, it will take some serious refocusing and reconfiguration to reach the heights of two years ago.

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