In the current over-saturated digital media climate, the rarest artists are the ones who endure. The ones who can change and grow without sacrificing what is most unique about themselves, perpetually refining their craft, until they reach a pinnacle. Simply put, with their new LP I Feel Alive, TOPS are a band at the peak of their game. The Montreal four-piece has toured the world countless times and released three critically-lauded albums —Tender Opposites, Picture You Staring, and Sugar at the Gate — carving out their own lane in the independent music world along the way. I Feel Alive manages to surpass their previous material while staying true to the essence of what has always set them apart.
In the fall of 2019 TOPS started their own label, Musique TOPS, in order to self-release their material. The move feels at home with the motivation behind the bands existing discography of self-recorded and self-produced albums and videos. The resulting freedom has led to the best music of TOPS’s career. Their trademark sound — beguiling melodies over soft-rock grooves, with touches of ‘80s sophistipop and a contemporary experimental palette — is intact, but bolder and more expansive. The songs manage to be both immediately catchy and deceptively deep, with Penny’s literary, insightful lyrics adding an extra dimension to the pure pop hooks. Satisfying yet far from predictable, this is a record to be savored, revealing itself slowly, gaining power and poignancy with each listen.
The artwork, inspired by the work of photographer Thomas Ruff, is a stark and honest portrait of TOPS’ lead singer Jane Penny. Without make-up, the photo is almost devoid of expression, until further examination reveals a sense of premonition behind her eyes. She is suspended between emotions, a captive speculator of our modern time. The image captures the fraught nature of being alive which the 11 tracks on the album explore.
For I Feel Alive, the band members convened in a basement studio in Montreal. “We’d spent a lot of time apart, not working on new stuff or touring, just living life, all in different cities,” says Penny. “The goal was to get in a room together and play, not holding anything back.” “It was a quick process,” says guitarist and fellow song-writer David Carriere. “We would work all day writing a song and then demo them the same evening, relying on our natural chemistry as a band to let the songs come into their own.”
Penny’s remarkably expressive voice is front and center. On this record more than any other, she sings with passion and energy, without sacrificing the vulnerability and introspection that gives her voice its depth. The songs cover a range of experiences but at it’s heart I Feel Alive is a record about resilience, the ways we can grow from for our pain and the strength that comes from learning to stand on your own as an individual.
Title track “I Feel Alive” is a bracing pop gem with darker undertones. An ode to new love, Penny sings “I feel alive looking in your eyes” with the exuberance that comes with the early stages of romance, the discovery of a deep love. But love is complicated, and within the joy and happiness is the pain of leaving someone else behind. “When I saw you wanted to spend the night with someone else at home,” she sings, “I knew it wasn’t right.” This honest admission that happiness can come at the expense of others adds another dimension to the songs ecstatic energy. True love defies us to overcome others expectations, and that’s a good thing. People may be watching, but why should you care.
The centerpiece of the record is “Colder and Closer.” A sonic departure for the band, with programmed synths and metallic drumming, the song shimmers. A tribute to seeking meaning in an increasingly confusing world Penny sings “Searching constellations/seeing if the stars align.” But she doesn’t take comfort in the stars, rejecting fate as something arbitrary, though not quite meaningless. “Signs are myths like nations/shapes drawn over crooked lines.” The song is swift and lean, a pop confection, but it’s also ripe with meditations on the social isolation that plagues casual intimacy. It’s a prime example of the way TOPS layer meaning within pop songwriting.
Beneath the soaring melodies and crisp production, I Feel Alive balances the giddiness of a new relationship with the agony of leaving old things behind. It’s an introspective record that you can dance to, music that hits in an immediate rush but sticks around, lingering like the memory of a perfect doomed love affair—both the joy and the pain—until it becomes a part of your life forever.