Tender Kid, Phone Voice
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In November 2018, Mo Troper announced on social media that he had written the theme song for the upcoming James Bond movie, Never Dream of Dying. The song—full of the sort of orchestral flourishes and soaring choruses that wouldn’t have sounded out of place two generations ago on A.M. radio—dropped on YouTube a few weeks later and was followed by a profile of Troper on the now-defunct “culture blog” ‘Reel News’ that sought to explain why in the world an artist like him would be tapped by the Bond franchise in 2019. Generous comparisons to Harry Nilsson and breathless quotes from *Hollywood producers* notwithstanding, Troper was certain that anybody who read the profile would instantly realize it was a joke, and that he was the author.
“So a week or two later,” he confesses to me now, “I found out that this guy whose band I was recording had told his dad about it. The dad had never really respected his decision to pursue music. But now it was like, Hey Dad, look at the kind of people I’m working with! And the dad—who I guess was a giant Bond fan—told his son for like the very first time that he was proud of him for being a musician.”
“Yikes,” I say. “I don’t even think that’s gonna be the actual title of the movie.”
“I’m sure he’ll figure it out at some point,” Troper says, wincing at me over his cup of coffee. “I feel kind of bad about that.”
I first saw Troper perform when he was a brazen twenty-year-old college student fronting the power-pop band Your Rival. Upon hearing him climb into the upper reaches of his multi-octave range, my friend Lisa (who had been tight with the Exploding Hearts and has some expertise upon the subject) nudged me in the ribs. “This is punk as hell!” she said.
Now twenty-seven, Troper looks fatigued beyond his years and admits to a growing discomfort with his reputation in the Portland music community as being a bit of an enfant terrible. The fallout from the Bond stunt isn’t the first time he’s brought somebody grief with his music.
“I’ve considered removing some of those early recordings from the Internet,” he says, “stuff about my relationships that caused a lot of drama, or stuff that’s been critical about people in this town, but I can’t bring myself to do it.”
At least some of Troper’s fatigue must be due to having finally finished mastering his third solo album, Natural Beauty, a pristine collection of pop songs that represents a giant step forward from the hook-laden angst of his earlier recordings. “I’ve always wanted to make a record like this,” he says, “but the arrangements are much more intricate than anything I could have attempted a few years ago.”
It’s not the first time he’s used strings—they showed up on the anthemic millennial self-own “Your Brand” off 2017’s Exposure and Response (via Roger Joseph Manning Jr. of Jellyfish and Beck’s live band, one of Troper’s professed idols), a song that might have been huge in the ’90s, or in a parallel universe where petulant guitar music still charted—but with Troper’s caustic wit turning inward on Natural Beauty, the music in turn has become prettier, subtler, more timeless, and the strings no longer cry for attention. Natural Beauty was recorded in the uneasy yet fertile time after Troper returned to his hometown of Portland from two brief, failed experiments of living elsewhere: first in Los Angeles and then in New York. Album opener “I Eat” explores one of the less flattering corners of his life in LA: binge-eating.
“It’s a pretty funny song,” I tell him. “The melody is so gorgeous, but then you notice the lyrics—It’s the spice of life that I’m after / or at least something to die for—”
“I don’t think it’s funny at all,” he says sharply.
Troper has generally embraced his reputation for being an “asshole.” Casey Jarman, co-founder of Party Damage Records, who released Your Rival’s debut album Here’s To Me back in 2013, even used that word to describe him in an early bio.
“Mo thinks his music should be huge,” Jarman confided in me last week, when I told him I’d agreed to write this bio, “but probably a little too often he’s let that ambition—and accompanying bitterness—seep into his lyrical subjects.”
That bitterness is not entirely unfounded—with his old bands Your Rival, TeenSpot, and Sancho, Troper was producing excellent emo-flecked “nineties-core” a good half-decade before the blogosphere caught on. And as a music columnist for the Portland Mercury and co-founder of Portland’s Good Cheer Records, Troper was, for a time, a tireless documentarian of his hometown’s “rock underground”—a scene whose vitality was eventually sapped by “wrongheaded, coke-addled moralizers” and “private school-educated opportunists.” (His take, not mine.)
Yet herein lies the enormous appeal of Natural Beauty: instead of the “snot-nosed pwnage” of his earlier music (so said Pitchfork in their 6.0 review of his debut solo album), this new record presents the salient details of Troper’s life without the juvenile editorializing that has, at times, kept listeners at arm’s length.
Album highlight “Jas From Australia” features a melody as buoyant and sweet as anything Ray Davies ever wrote, with a dash of Internet-age urgency mixed in. The song’s straightforward storytelling—Jas was Troper’s first love, they met online when they were teenagers, and never met in person—sets the listener up for this gut-punch two-thirds of the way through the song: “I said I was moving to Melbourne but I lied and now you know.”
It’s easy to take music this catchy for granted, and confuse beauty with superficiality, but these songs are remarkably durable. At a recent show at Portland club Rontoms, I found the choruses just as thrilling as on the record, and Troper’s range more audacious than ever. He seems, at long last, to feel at home in his hometown, and admits that he is more motivated by the idea of playing a festival like PDX Pop Now! than of getting another Pitchfork review.
“When I got back to Portland,” he says, “the joke was that I ‘faked my own death.’ Only a handful of people knew that I was here, and I was unemployed and living at my parents’ house. I would drive to Northwest and spend hours scoring the string and horn arrangements for these songs, and then I would put the arrangements on my phone and walk around the grounds of MLC—my old school—listening to them, making mental revisions. Although I didn’t realize it then, it was maybe the most inspired period of my life. And maybe the last time that things will come this quickly to me.”
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