Post Malone is a melodically gifted misanthrope with a voice that always sounds like it’s running away. If Drake has been the architect of the last decade’s pop evolution, Post Malone has been its savviest adopter, making ethereal post-rap pop songs that sound inevitable, and also evanescent.
“Hollywood’s Bleeding,” the 24-year-old musician’s third album, will certainly be one of this year’s most popular, thanks to the intensity of his success on streaming platforms (his first two albums remain in the top tiers of the Billboard chart) as well as his wild adaptability. He is a rock singer whose cadences come from hip-hop, a pop songwriter who marries brightness with sleaze. He’s every genre — it’s all in him.
Which means that even when he is stretching the boundaries of his sound, as he does in several places on “Hollywood’s Bleeding,” the results feel the opposite of experimental. When you’re an omnivore taking a mortar and pestle to six decades of pop music history and turning it into a smooth slurry, it’s nigh impossible to shock.
That’s true on “Allergic” and “A Thousand Bad Times,” both spacey songs with a sharp kick that suggest the “Grease” soundtrack dipped into an acid bath. It’s even true on “Take What You Want,” an excellent song that opens with a guest appearance by a strikingly undimmed Ozzy Osbourne, and also features some deep-echo Travis Scott yelps.
Coming from most other artists, these would be hard stylistic jolts. But Post Malone’s signature aesthetic gesture is the smear, the complaisant way his voice molds neatly to whatever’s handed to him. (This album is produced largely by Louis Bell, who has worked closely with Post Malone since his debut album, and helped shape his shapeless sound.) The most disorienting moments here are the most crisp — the title track, in which he sings like he’s carefully filling in Scantron bubbles, or the bubbly single “Wow,” on which he sounds, well, alert.
This is unusual for Post Malone; sleepy-eyed absorption is his thing. Typically his music moves slowly enough to encourage getting lost. But he also juggles his emotional compass. When he’s boasting, he sounds miserable, like on “Saint-Tropez,” on which he sings like he’s lost inside a haunted house. And when he’s moping — which is often — he renders his darkness with a kind of dignity and beauty. “A Thousand Bad Times” is a blissfully happy song about misery: “I had a thousand bad times, so what’s another time to me?/You try to burn my house down, but what’s another house to me?”
Mostly, though, he’s just petulant, some combination of arrogant and whiny: “I’m going to do what I want, when I want, when I want, yeah,” he chants on “I’m Gonna Be.”
Jumbling all of the feelings into one is a neat trick — whatever someone might be hoping to find is in there somewhere. Post Malone is emotional tofu, a skill, not an accident.
His talent is rooted in the distressed way he deploys his voice — soft-focus, faded at the edges. Perhaps the emblematic vocal style of the day, it’s widely used in pop and hip-hop, but his ambiguity is of an elevated, refined sort.
It also makes for some unusual kin. Post Malone has an unexpected partner in Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, a patient deployer of technology in a wholly different musical context, and whose new album, “i,i,” has a surprising amount in common with “Hollywood’s Bleeding.”
Both Vernon and Post Malone are the great-grandchildren of Kanye West’s 2008 album “808s & Heartbreaks,” and even though they’ve filtered that source material differently — Post Malone is laser focused on accessibility, Bon Iver prefers abstraction — they both use submersion to similar ends. For Post Malone, it’s to thrive in the streaming ecosystem, where you try to game listeners to press play but never hit stop. For Bon Iver, it’s to experiment in the live context — Vernon’s performances are thick with sensory inputs, channeling free jazz and jam band sprawl, all coated with the reassuringly warm bleats of Vernon’s voice.
There’s something noncommittal in both Vernon and Post Malone, as if no matter how vivid their songs become, they themselves would rather not be noticed. But what’s truly different about their music is the way they weaponize their abstraction. For Post Malone, it’s a warning sign about drowning in your own success. For Vernon, it’s a sign that there might be hope on the horizon.