Adam Campagna's alter ego finds his voice on "Everything's Good/It's Not Working."
Lo-fi recordings go one of two ways for me. They often sound like the artist is self-consciously lowering the stakes, making recordings that sound so provisional that we should be happy they got out at all. Others sound human and real, stripped of all the production that inflates emotions to cartoonish extremes. Mr. Universe’s Everything’s Good/It’s Not Working falls into the latter category.
Adam Campagna is Mr. Universe, and he filters a classic ‘70s pop sensibility through a handful of instruments—guitar, keyboards and a retro, ticking drum machine. His lyrics share mixed emotions with the album title as he deals with the suspicion that things used to be better, but he’s not sure they really were. “Remember when it was good back in high school,” he sings with fond recollection in “Big Star Record,” but memories aren’t trustworthy, and his other advice—“Let the ones who love you forgive you in time”—casts shade on how good things really were.
Campagna’s voice makes the tensions in the songs more than fodder for dissection. When he sings, “Goddamn I miss you sometimes,” he does so as if he’s blown away that the memory of one he misses can still barge into his life at unexpected times and wreck him again. He’s not dramatic, but you can hear how profoundly he feels the songs’ emotions in the hint of a Leon Russell drawl that lingers just long enough over a word or thought to hint at its weight in his mind.
His voice is there from the first song, but “Big Star Record” is a deceptive opening song. Between its title, the deliberate quote from “September Gurls,” and its memories of high school, the track points to an album of meta power pop—something it never is again. The Eno-fied country songs, churning indie rock and piano ballads feel scattered after it, but once the ballads kick in, the album becomes clearer. After listening to “Be the One,” “Dear, and “Goddamn” a time or two, its easier to hear the common thread through the album, one introduced by the chorus and not the referential verse of “Big Star Record.” Step away from the cleverness of the song’s concept and it is easier to hear how Campagna foregoes lyrics with MFA ambitions to get to something more felt. Once his words and voice are the listener's focus, the scrubbed guitars and retro synths help Everything’s Good/It’s Not Working reveal heart that indie and lo-fi artists are often reluctant to expose.