From the tone of such hits as his 2010 debut “Cooler Than Me” and 2015’s “I Took A Pill In Ibiza,” singing, songwriting pop-hop beardo Mike Posner had a seemingly breezy take on life, love and responsibility. If you could have squeezed together the two Justins — Timberlake and Bieber (Posner has written for the latter) — into one folksy, shaggy, club-rap trap, it would come out smelling sweet like Mike. There’s always been a melancholy edge to Posner’s innocence mission, but his light soulful rasp, gently thumping grooves and upbeat optimism always gives away his unique club kiddishness.
Posner’s third studio album, “A Real Good Kid,” however, portrays what a few years (he turns 31 in February), and several tragedies (the death of his father after a protracted illness, the suicide of friend-collaborator Avicii, whom he famously referenced in the line “I took a pill in Ibiza to show Avicii I was cool”) can do to a man, and how he thinks of that now-ragged axis of life, love and responsibility.
Whether or not Posner is asking his teen audience to take him more seriously is irrelevant. For once, he sounds as if he is living deeply within the moment (backed by a thick brass synth part on “Song about You,” he sounds positively brusque), and seeks to have his audience contemplate the gravity of the split second. Elements of “A Real Good Kid” may sound as bright as those Ibizan shores – the meaty, world beat-y “Stuck in the Middle,” for example. But, the majority of Posner’s most mature and vulnerable recording to date finds the weight of consequence and the emotional passage of time (as on the Frank Ocean-esque “Drip”) to be thrilling in its uncertainty, but treacherously sad once the end hits, hard.
Starting with a spare “January 11th, 2017,” and a Beach Boys-esque choral harmony, a growling, falsetto’d Posner rummages through a life (or, in this case, a set of drawers) with the most minuscule of details at his ready. His sister smoked all the joints in that drawer. He got a thousand perfumed hugs. His rugs got dirty when the cops came to claim the body . And, by the end of it all, ”on the day my daddy died, I became a man.”
From that point forward, Posner muses about the butterfly-flitting freedom afforded him in “Wide Open,” with plucky acoustic guitars, lullaby keyboards and Raymond Scott-like twitches. Only, he’s not as footloose as he wants, weighed down as he is by commitment and an inability to break the chains of past mistakes. “I got a new woman, but I treat her like my old one,” he sings. “If I keep this shit up, I know I’ma be with no one.”
With its sunshiny strum and four-on-the-floor pulse, “Move On” could be an sanguine platitude-filled take on break-ups and crying alone, but smiling through the pain. “Beginnings always hide themselves in ends/ At some point I will be okay” and “I wish Tracy Chapman was my friend/ She would know exactly what to say,” litter the top half of the tune like ants at a picnic. Then you hit Posner’s video for the same song, and you see clips of Posner’s father, who died after battling brain cancer with his son by his side – to say nothing of footage of his pal, producer Avicii, and you realize that moving on has weightier implications, and that any smiling Posner does to hide the pain is more of a pragmatic exercise than a healing one.
Like Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown,” a grin is a flimsy mask in which to shield oneself from heartache. That’s corny, but true, and every re-listening to “Move On” after you see the clip affirms that feeling. And with that, and through the entirety of “A Real Good Kid,” you feel and hear how greatly the still-gangly Posner has matured without losing his childlike charm.