23-year-old Khai Dreams is a popular figure online. With over 2.3 million monthly listeners on Spotify and 62,000 followers on Soundcloud – more than, say, Loyle Carner (58,000) or Beabadoobee (51,000) on the platform – they’ve certainly built a respectable digital fanbase.
Perhaps this is in part down to the singer-songwriter’s familiarity with the digital sphere. Like an Americanised play on a UK Royal Navy advert, they’ve described how they were “born in Eugene, Oregon, but I’m definitely, like, from the Internet, you know?”
Of late, even this humble world of the internet has appeared to start encroaching on our human endeavours through the rise of ChatGPT; a program which Nick Cave – who knows his way around a song or two – recently penned a rather beautiful critique of.
Beautiful, mortal art, he writes on his blog site The Red Hand Flies, derives from “the breathless confrontation with one’s vulnerability, one’s perilousness, one’s smallness, pitted against a sense of sudden shocking discovery; it is the redemptive artistic act that stirs the heart of the listener, where the listener recognizes in the inner workings of the song their own blood, their own struggle, their own suffering.”
I don’t for a moment dismiss the struggles Khai Dreams has experienced; of which there have been a few, having grown up as a non-binary, half-Vietnamese American who suffered from bouts of anxiety and depression throughout their youth.
But when you focus on the music from their debut album Absolute Heartbreak, despite its emphatically emotional title, it rarely cuts deeply or offers much by way of genuine vulnerability. Instead, there’s an air of feigned emotional outpouring, a mimicry of what artists should sound like when expressing themselves.
It’s no easy feat to put Mr. Cave’s words into action, but Khai should have at least heeded his advice more.
Opener ‘Bugs’, for instance, is easy to glaze over, sounding like its constituent parts are derived from a starter pack of loops from a basic music-making software, and not much else.
Subsequent ‘Rats’ and penultimate tune ‘Flowers’, meanwhile, offer an emo bedroom pop that wouldn’t be out of place in a soundtrack to a noughties teen rom-com; you know, the one where the guy likes the girl but there’s a problem until it all magically works itself out in the end. All a bit anodyne and predictable.
Six months ago, Beabadoobee showed how to move away from the bedroom pop burden, with a world-building record that enveloped you in its sonic swirls and lullabylike harmonies. It wasn’t perfect, but it certainly broke beyond the confines of a mere four walls, whereas Absolute Heartbreak still sounds like a scrapbook of songs, the project files still barely saved on Ableton.
In a recent interview, Khai Dreams reflected on why they’d initially described their album as “unhinged bedroom pop”, saying “I have no idea. I think I just called it that because the songs feel all over the place.”
Although the artist would add “I think this project is really frantic and kind of dirty, but in a good way,” their first point proves closer to the mark.
Somewhat ironically, the record’s best tune is called ‘Not Enough’, which builds on an acoustic guitar into a chorus where Khai’s vocals sound at their most stretched, their most genuine.
Following track ‘No Company’ isn’t so bad, either. It’s a pared back number which resembles a Phoebe Bridgers cover, and bears the line “Cause the last time / Felt like the last time that / I’ll feel that way again”; the kind of sweet refrain that also appeared on tracks like ‘Sunkissed’ (“You’re so lovely / I can’t help but fall for you, love”), which has helped Khai Dreams grow a healthy listenership.
Track ‘Overall’, though, with its low-fi breakbeat, sounds like mere pastiche of Frank Ocean, one of Khai’s influences for the album, whilst album closer ‘Good Advice’ – devised from just Khai and a guitar – goes out not with a bang but a whimper.
Here’s the thing. I have no reason to go after Khai Dreams or their album. In fact, released in the week in which The Razzies – the awards dedicated to poor performances in film – faced backlash for nominating a 12-year-old girl, we should remind ourselves to move on from unnecessarily harsh critique.
Sometimes, amid all the growing causes for worldly concern (ChatGPT included), it’s okay to listen to something fairly subtle that doesn’t penetrate deeply, but meanders inoffensively atop the surface. Absolute Heartbreak is a decent debut, but it won’t blow your socks off.
(As if to prove my point, in the aforementioned interview Khai Dreams was asked which artists they would want to work with in the future. Their response? “Probably “Weird Al” Yankovic or Mumford & Sons. They are cool.” Mumford & Sons? Even an automated chatbot would rightly beg to differ).