Half in Light/Half in Dark: “Monsters”, the Midnight
If there’s one thing that’s consistent about me, it’s my love for the Midnight. Ever since I heard “Jason” from their album “Endless Summer” in a Retrowave playlist on Spotify, I’ve been obsessed. Tim McEwan and Tyler Lyle create a unique sound incorporating retrowave with singer/songwriter lyrics and beats that any DJ or producer would kill for. The blending of genres speaks to my broad love for music and keeps me interested in the best way.
2020 has been a wild, awful ride so far. The anticipation for this album kept my spirits high, and when July 10th finally came, I grabbed my headphones and listened to the whole thing in one sitting. I haven’t stopped listening to it since.
The energy of this album is so unlike any of their other albums so far, and I’ve noticed some fans are opposed to the evolution of sound from the band. In my humble opinion, I think the divisiveness is unnecessary. I LOVE when a band starts to evolve their sound! When Linkin Park went from “Minutes to Midnight” to “A Thousand Suns”, people were upset at how drastically their sound changed. My little teenaged heart absolutely loved the change, and my almost 27 year old heart loves the subtle change in sound that the Midnight have presented us with in this album.
“Monsters” isn’t just about the sound, however. There’s an underlying story that a casual fan might not pick up on. Their previous album, “Kids” is part one of a three-part story. When I found that out, I knew I had to analyze this album like any true former AP English student would. Of course, while you read this blog post, I highly, HIGHLY suggest listening to the album in order, from start to finish. I listen on Spotify, but of course supporting the artist is always appreciated.
(Note: I’m starting in the middle of a trilogy, I know. I want to analyze “Kids” as well! When that album came out, it took me longer to warm up to it because it had an 80s nostalgia feel that I wasn’t familiar with and it took time for me to get over that and get into the album as a whole. While I’m still working on my notes for that album, “Monsters” was much easier to connect with because I was able to feel the particular nostalgic feel they were going for a LOT easier. I love both [and all] of their albums but “Monsters” just hits different for me!)
Let’s Get Into the General Idea Here…
To put it simply, “Monsters” is about the teenage years of life. Everything is so much more intense; love, loss, and everything in between just feels so raw and brand new. Much like when a toddler scrapes their knee for the first time, a broken heart feels unbelievably painful. There’s nothing else like it when you’re young.
There are two distinct halves of this album: a lighter half and a darker half. For me, the lighter half of the album reminds me of their albums “Endless Summer” and the predecessor to this album, “Kids”. The bright and wondrous vibe of “Endless Summer” and the childhood nostalgia from “Kids” blend into a mood that can only be described as a teenager’s first love.
Once we get to the middle of the album, there is a distinct shift in tone. Up until the shift, we can sense that things are getting more intense, and by the time the title track comes around, we are officially in the darker half of the album. Our teenager from the first half of the album is feeling the moodiness that comes with being, well, a teenager. Love is lost, new experiences are found, uncertainty is prevalent in every beat. The way the story is told is near perfect.
Now, let’s get into the meat of the album…
Half in Light: 1991 to Prom Night
The Midnight has always been fantastic at infusing nostalgia in every album. The intro to this particular album (1991/America Online) keeps up the trend with a whole dial-up introduction leading into the first track. When I first heard the familiar sound of dial up, I instantly was back in the computer room on Lavender Lane (my old street when I was a little little kid).
America Online is their first single from “Monsters”, having released it in May of 2019. This is the beginning of the story of this album, posing questions like “if I love you, will you love me?”, “I am reaching, are you reaching out?/if I touch you, will you touch me now?” and the big question, “are we all one beating heart?”
It’s obvious that this song is about the innocence and the unfamiliarity with the new feelings one has for another. The last lyric, “or are we strangers? Am I the stranger?” feeds into the nervousness that every person feels when figuring out what this new feeling is.
One lyric, “I felt it, I felt the spark” brings us to our first major theme: Fire. In almost every song, we hear something about fire, sparks, flames. While listening, see how many times they mention it! Passion and desire are two words we’ll here a lot within this album, and when we look at how Lyle and McEwan use the fire and flame analogy, it’s pretty easy to believe that they want us to use that imagery to connect with said passion our narrator is feeling.
“Dance With Somebody” is a feel-good song. This song is going to be SO good live because the energy screams positivity. The lyrics are fun, with the chorus “life’s too short to to dance by yourself/think you should dance with somebody/not by yourself” resonating with literally anyone who has ever been to a school dance. It’s scary to get out and dance sometimes!!
I remember reading a tweet from Lyle before the release of the album but after the release of this single. He said that this song takes influence from his own life, seeing as he never really used to dance growing up (I WISH I could find the tweet, but it’s lost in the Twitter Void now). Knowing this fact makes me appreciate this song a little bit more because it’s charmingly relatable.
“Seventeen” is where the classic Midnight sound starts to evolve into something new. The first time I heard this song, I was on the bus on the way home from work. I’m glad they are enforcing wearing masks on the bus because within the first two seconds of hearing the beat, I made the ugliest face in my life. I was blown away by the production of the song, the not-so-familiar sound of modern drum beats, and the lyrics? The way Tyler Lyle’s voice wraps around the word “free?” I lost my mind on the bus that day.
This song is about that first love everyone has, the whirlwind passion that one feels with that first touch, first kiss. “When you’re seventeen/the thought of a spark can start a fire” rings so true.
Remembering where I was when I was seventeen really helps me love this song even more. When I was seventeen, I was on and off with my first love. I was a senior in high school, with dreams of going to college and making a family with that boy…now I look back and laugh at how my life changed so much.
I love that “Seventeen” brought back those memories. The lyric “Time takes no prisoners, you’ll see” is nothing but fact.
By the time we get to “Dream Away”, we are deep within the teen nostalgia. Our narrator is having all sorts of new experiences and new feelings. I believe that this song is focused around our narrator literally day dreaming about his future. He wakes up and realizes that the dream means nothing if one doesn’t work to make it happen. The lyrics stumped me at first, but the more I listen to the song, the more convinced I am that it’s about wanting more out of life, particularly when you’re a teen.
There isn’t one person alive who didn’t have huge dreams when they were teenagers. I wanted to be a singer, an actress, a teacher, a writer, and so much more. I knew hard work was part of making it happen, but my naïveté as a young one gave me rose colored glasses, and I ended up forgetting that perfect world as I got older and entered “The Real World”.
“Dream Away” to me is a song about realizing it’s okay to hold on to those dreams, but also realizing it takes a lot more than just dreaming to make it happen.
The production of the song itself is very modern pop. We look at modern pop artists from the past few years and see that there is a lot of influence from Southern Asia (like India, for example) in terms of sound. At least, on the local Top 40 station I’ve been noticing there’s been a lot of that influence as well as club beats being a common sound. The Midnight (particularly McEwan, who does the production and mixing) does a great job at taking advantage of that popularity and creating a song that is not only catchy, but gives us that message in a fun way.
The next song, “The Search for Ecco”, is the first instrumental song on the album (if you don’t count the intro track). It’s our first hint about the second running theme of this album: Water. Fire and Water are the underlying themes of this album, and Water in particular is not as obviously presented as Fire is.
I love this track specifically because of its pulse. It’s got a tempo that doesn’t falter and the synths create a feeling of an ocean meeting the shore. To me, it’s almost a soothing song.
I also found out that Ecco the Dolphin is a video game! I am slightly too young to know about the game (it came out on Sega Genesis the year before I was born). I didn’t do a lot of research on the game’s makeup, but I have a feeling the aesthetic and the sound of the game give fans who’ve played the game a blast of nostalgia upon first listen to this song.
“Prom Night”, the latest single from the album, gave me chills upon first listen. It’s a song written for the stage, hands down. I can’t WAIT until the pandemic is over so the Midnight can come back to Columbus so I can feel this song live. If there’s one song you have to hear from this album, it’s this one.
This song is a classic song about Prom. Lots of artists have written about the universal experience of going to Prom, but none have fully captured the feeling of that first dance with the person you like a lot like the Midnight have. Holding hands for the first time? Experiencing that warmth and that excitement for the first time?? It’s unreal.
I think the lyric “we’ll never pass this way again” really cements that Prom Night specific desire to be closer to someone you love. There isn’t a comparable experience to Prom in my opinion. Prom is the very last school dance you ever go to, and no matter how much one tries to downplay it, it’s a huge deal when you’re 17–18. You’ll never have an experience quite like it.
The Shift: Fire in the Sky
“Fire In The Sky” is the shift of tone in the album. This is where it goes from light to dark in tone. It’s also my favorite song on the album, hands down.
The entire song is sensual, hypnotizing, and has a pull that no other song I’ve heard this year has. Once again, I cannot WAIT until I can hear this song live. When I saw the Midnight live for the first time a year ago, my favorite song by them was “Nocturnal” and when they played it, my soul left my body, y’all. It was an out of body experience that I think I’ve only had at one other concert (the XX is THAT good live). I know with absolute certainty that when they play “Fire In The Sky” live, my soul is gonna leap right out of me again.
The sensuality of the song’s production is matched with the lyrics. There’s a magnetic passion between the narrator and the person he’s come across by chance (“But when I saw you, there was nothing I could ever do/to ignore the smell of smoke across the room”). I think the level of attraction presented in the lyrics is a type of lust that any former teenager has felt.
Remembering the passion and heat from a first love that I knew wouldn’t last is something I think a lot of people can relate to. Even if you can’t apply it to a teenaged setting, most adults have had the experience of an immediate attraction to a person you least expect to meet.
I wanted to point out that the narrator has been hurt before this meeting, whether on purpose or by accident we don’t know (“I told my heart that I would keep it safe and locked away”); the magnetic attraction and the desire the narrator feels outweighs his hesitation in making his presence known to the person (“But I found myself walkin’ to you through the flames”). For me, that’s all I needed to see this album as a story in the first place (before I realized “Kids” was connected, “Monsters” was just a new album I’d been looking forward to!).
I love a good sexy song. “Fire In The Sky” is definitely a sexy song. The passion is only matched by another song on the album, which we’ll get into soon…
Half in Dark: Monsters to Last Train
By the time we get to the titular track, “Monsters”, the Midnight has proven that they have been able to evolve their sound in a positive way, while staying true to their retrowave roots. This song is a perfect example of the band’s evolution. This song also marks the darker half of the album, where the tone has shifted into a broodier “Nocturnal” feel. “Nocturnal” is my favorite album by the Midnight, so I was very happy to get to this half of the album. I’m a sucker for darker, angry, brooding sounds in music.
The song itself is a gorgeous poem in my opinion. Taken literally, the story of this song is a man and a woman who have their hearts sewn together Frankenstein-style, and the woman dies. The man has to live with her corpse sewn to him for life, making him a monster.
But this is an analysis, so we’re gonna go deeper into the water of this song instead of floating on the surface.
I think I took the most notes on this song because I really wanted to make sure I understood the story behind it. From what I can tell, this couple loved each other so deeply, but it ended up imploding and they broke apart. It’s the only duet on the album (Shoutout to Jupiter Winter, a duo that I’ll have to listen to more because her voice is gorgeous), and this gives me a great idea on the two perspectives of this song.
From Lyle’s character’s perspective, his love for this woman went so deep and was so passionate that he would do anything to be with her forever (“I signed the dotted line/that tethered yours to mine/no anesthetic for hearts electric” being the key to seeing just how passionate this narrator is about his feelings).
It seems as if she fell out of love with him and he took it a little rough (“the part of you that died/I’ll carry all my life”; “I held so tight that I lost her”; “We could’ve been fireflies/but that fire died”…poor buddy). It changed him for the worse. Being broken up with gives you two choices: take it lightly or take it SO hard. Our narrator chose the latter (“I was wrong/love’s a con/I’m a monster”).
When we get to Jupiter Winter’s character narration we can see that from the woman’s perspective, she wanted so badly for it to work and it just wouldn’t. It reminds me of every time I’ve had to break up with someone; the love was gone and there was nothing I could do to bring it back, even if I still had love for them. (“Hope lingers on after the one you love is gone/thought I smelled your ghost in my winter coat”). “A young love doomed from the start” is what I have written in my notes, and I think that applies here pretty well.
Her chorus is different from the male narrator’s. While he’s bitter about the loss of love, she’s almost apologetic, but stands by her choice (“I meant no harm/we were both wrong/moving on”).
I recently saw a post (I WISH I had saved it, I’m awful at research I’m sorry y’all) where someone linked the Fool tarot card to this song (based on the lyrics of “I played the fool/and you played the martyr”). I believe that this is a direct influence from Tyler Lyle, since I’ve noticed his tarot deck in a few of his posts about his studio on Twitter (honestly, he might have retweeted the post I’m thinking about now that I’m writing this out…Like I said, I suck at research, I’m sorry!!).
In tarot, the Fool is either the first (Zero) or the last (XXII) card in the Major Arcana. He represents new beginnings, innocence, and having faith in the future.
If we go by this theme, the “martyr” is most likely connected to the Hanged Man. In tarot, the Hanged Man is the twelfth card in the Major Arcana. He represents making the ultimate sacrifice or surrender. Most traditional tarot cards depict him hanging in what is known as a “pittura infamante”, a common punishment for traitors in Italy (source). This means he’s upside down hanging by one ankle, in simple terms.
What’s interesting about this card is if you pull it and it’s reversed (meaning the card itself is upside down), the keywords associated to it change from “letting go” and “metamorphosis” to “inability to change” and “missing an opportunity due to one’s ego”. The reversed Hanged Man is a card I used to pull frequently in my early tarot card education. I believe that within the context of the song, our male narrator is strongly connected to the reverse reading of this particular card.
Moving on to “Helvetica”, the song named after the font. Lots of fans love this song because they believe the song does the font justice. I love this song because of the contrast in tone between the two songs prior.
This instrumental track goes all over the place when it comes to tempo and key. The key changes so much, which I love! To me, this song is a nighttime ocean, waves breaking against rock, water dark and deep. It’s a great contrast to the Fire theme in “Fire In The Sky” and “Monsters”. It leads us into the calm before the storm.
“Brooklyn” is a special song. Tyler Lyle released his acoustic version on his album “The Floating Years” in 2019, but that’s not where I heard it for the first time.
The first time I heard “Brooklyn” was at the Midnight concert I went to in 2019 with Matt, my husband. Up until that point, I knew every song they had played and sang along to every word. When Lyle started playing this one, almost everyone knew a little bit of the song at least…except me. Instead of trying to sing along, I listened. Matt was behind me, holding me in his arms, and we swayed back and forth as we listened to Lyle’s solo song.
When I heard this album version for the first time, I had a huge sense that I had heard it before, but couldn’t quite pinpoint where. I just knew that it reminded me of Matt, so I held it close. A few days later, while driving with Matt, I remembered! When I told him, he had the same moment of clarity and fondness for that night that I did. It was a gorgeous night, one that I’ll never forget. Now that there’s two versions of this song, I just have to figure out which one to include in the anniversary playlist for the year!
“Brooklyn” is a perfect love song, in my opinion. The lyrics are beautiful, and the production that McEwan threw on it makes it richer, more vibrant and more fitting to this album. Surprisingly, I couldn’t connect it to the overarching story at all while I took my notes. That being said, it fits with the theme of love prevalent in the album.
Knowing that Lyle lives in New York, I did have a thought about how he may have written this for his wife (solely based on the lyrics “Four years in Brooklyn/and happy birthday, Darling”) and that adds to my love for the song so much more. Any time a person writes a song or a poem for someone they love, I’m a sappy mess.
While “Brooklyn” may not completely have to do with the overarching story of the album, “Deep Blue” most definitely does. I honestly can’t think of a more climactic song off of an album than this one.
“Deep Blue” and “Fire In The Sky” are mirror images of each other. While “Fire In The Sky” is fiery passion and bright desire, “Deep Blue” is about that feeling of being swept up in the passion and desire much like a boat in the middle of a turbulent sea.
This song’s production is out of this world. As the second single from the album, and the first one after a year of “America Online”, this song got me so, SO hype the first time I heard it. Even now, I’m excited just thinking about it! The way Lyle hits the lyrics, the way McEwan puts that classic Midnight drum beat down, the way the sax, well, saxes, is all just SO good.
Where “Fire In The Sky” is a sensual song, a slow sexy buildup to two characters meeting, “Deep Blue” is a sudden rush of passion, a surprising but deep feeling of desire between two people. Our narrator “wasn’t looking for romance/just a quick slow dance” but he got a lot more than he bargained for.
“Deep Blue” at face value might seem like just a repeat song, but when compared to “Fire In The Sky”, I believe that this love in this song might be different for our narrator, it might last this time around.
Also, I love this quote from Lyle (from their release day Reddit AMA):
This quote, along with other reasons, is why I decided to analyze this album in the first place. There’s so much more within the album’s lyrics and production than you’d think if you just take the album at face value.
“Night Skies” is the darkest song on the album, in my opinion. It feels like it belongs on “Nocturnal”, with Lyle’s vocoder vocals and McEwan’s synthy sounds and melodic call backs to both “Deep Blue” and “Shadows” (the first track off of “Nocturnal”).
This song is the absolute peak of desire and passion; Deep Blue” is the climax of the album, but “Night Skies” is the climax of the narrator. (“Your house is on fire, won’t you let me in?/I’m drowning in desire, your hair, your skin/The flames burn hotter the deeper you go in” and “Your ship is sinking, let me climb aboard/the flames burning hotter, oh my Lord”…like come on y’all)
As far as I can tell, this is the most straightforward song on the album. The passion and desire so far have peaked to the point of obsession and primal need, which any teenager can feel at the drop of a pin (let’s be real, them hormones are STRONG when you’re that age). Our teenaged narrator is in that emotional state in this song, and it’s intense. It gives me chills to listen to because feeling that intensity for the first time is a universal experience.
The next track, “City Dreams”, is directly connected to “Seventeen” in both lyrics and vibe. It brings us back down to the reality of our narrator: it’s 1991, he’s a teen trying to figure out what everything means, and having a wild time with it. I love the instrumental of this song. I wish it went on for like, three hours so I could just live in it for a while…
There’s an old ad in the background that I can’t make out with my special ears, but it brings me back to the “Kids” album, which was full of those kinds of quotes from the 80s! I think that’s probably on purpose, to bring our narrator back to his reality.
The Midnight has always been great all the way through their albums, and getting to the final song in an album has always been rewarding no matter what album I decide to listen to. “Last Train” continues this trend, giving us a hopeful end to the darker half of the album and bringing everything full circle.
One thing I love about each last song on a Midnight album is that it always feels like a sunrise. From “Los Angeles” to “Kids (Reprise)”, I always feel warm and fuzzy about getting to the end of each story. “Last Train” is no exception, with a slight bittersweet twist.
The story of this song is that two friends become lovers for the night after missing the last train home (“You missed the last train from the city tonight/old friends see each other in a different, different light”). Our narrator has been through so much in this album, so to have him say goodbye like this (“is this forever or is this goodbye?”) is almost heartbreaking in a sweet way. Pay attention particularly to the chorus for a healthy dose of heartbreaking nostalgia for your first love.
The last bit of the song, “Half in light and half in dark/is where we are/we are one beating heart” calls back to “America Online”’s question (“Are we all one beating heart?”). I absolutely LOVE this. It brings up thoughts of being in a crowded concert hall, everyone singing with the lead singer, becoming one with the music. I figure that’s not exactly what the Q/A was about (most likely more aligned with the experience of being a moody, unsure teen), but I love it none the less.
I think that the story of this album, mixed with the classic Midnight sound and the new Midnight sound makes it a killer part of my 2020. I’ve been looking forward to this album all year, and they did not disappoint. There are tracks that don’t necessarily “feel” like a classic Midnight album, but I love that their sound is evolving in such a way. Blending old retrowave with the new sounds of music today makes this album stand out from their discography in a positive way.
You have “Days of Thunder”, “Endless Summer”, and “Nocturnal”, three albums that all have the same general sounds but with varying levels of emotion and texture in the sense of how the music makes you feel. “Kids” for me was a departure from their older albums because it focused way, way more on the nostalgia of retrowave as well as the general (and very popular) 80s nostalgia. Coming into “Monsters”, I expected more of that nostalgia and classic sound. What we got was so much more.
Knowing that “Kids” was part one and “Monsters” was part two, I now expect something about the realities of being grown up in this new technological age for the third part of the trilogy. “Kids” was the 80s, “Monsters” was the 90s, and naturally, number three will most likely be set in the new millennium.
I find myself wondering what the story for the next album will be? Will it be more about loss, or maybe the beginning of a new chapter in life? Will it keep focusing on love, like this album? Or will it be about something none of us have dreamt up yet? Time will tell! According to the band, they say that no one will expect what happens next. I’m hoping that it rings true, and I can be surprised and enthralled all over again.
Thanks for reading this review/analysis of “Monsters” by the Midnight! The Midnight is definitely one of my favorite bands, maybe even the most favorite of all my favorites. Everything they’ve ever put out I’ve loved (even “Kids”, which I didn’t understand at first but now I love deeply). It’s one of the musical acts my husband and I can agree on, and the sound of the band is unique because they don’t really fit any specific genre (even though they are praised as being the best retrowave band out there, they are so much more than that).
I really hope you listened along while reading! Whether you did or you didn’t, please go and buy their album!! Streaming it works, but I always support non-mainstream bands by encouraging others to go straight to the source like I do. You won’t regret the investment!
If you enjoyed this post, feel free to go read my “Top Albums” series (which has “Endless Summer” at number 3, in no particular order of course). That series is the first adventure into blog writing for me. That being said, it’s unfinished. I encourage everyone to go check out how I approached writing about music back when I first started writing, because I’m sure it’s way different now!
Feel free to follow me on Twitter for blog updates and daily shenanigans (and probably more tweets about this album because I’m absolutely obsessed).