The last time I reviewed Melanie Martinez’s work, I focused more on her film than I did her album. Outside of reviewing Billie Eilish’s debut album, I do not have much experience with reviewing music. I never went into great detail about my thoughts on Melanie’s previous albums “Cry Baby” and “K-12,” so here is a brief sum-up for context.
Her first album was a daring debut, and I think it still holds up half a decade later.
Her lyrics utilize childlike metaphors to speak at lengths about complex and unconventional topics for the time. The blend of both electropop and darkwave music accentuates the alternative tone of the album. Out of many indie-pop lovelies to achieve success in the 2010s, I think her musical composition is one of the best.
That being said, “Cry Baby” is more juvenile in comparison to Melanie’s second album.
Some of the lyrics have not aged well with time (e.g., her final song “Mad Hatter” compares ableist connotations used against mentally ill people to Alice in Wonderland symbolism). The overarching story Melanie desired to tell for her debut album is not as cohesive as her later work. While both of her albums had their creative ambition streamlined, “Cry Baby” feels disjointed and immature in comparison.
Comparatively, “K-12” features more nuanced lyricism and storytelling. Even with its narrative limitations, the subject material and character development show growth in Melanie’s perspective as an artist.
For example, rather than a song about how the best people are “crazy,” the album’s concluding song “Recess” is about prioritizing your mental health over people who drain you.
My main issue with “K-12” is its regressed musical production when compared to its predecessor. While “Cry Baby” did feature sound effects and vocal distortion, it never exceeded to the point of feeling unnecessary. In “K-12,” while some of it is used to good effect, it primarily submerges Melanie’s vocal talents and becomes too distracting to overlook.
I enjoy both of Melanie’s albums, but there is a notable progression in quality from her debut album to her sophomore album. “After School” unfortunately meets in the middle. It takes the worst of both albums and produces a new mess, like a vacuum creating its own mud.
“After School” was one of the most hyped-up releases of 2020. In many ways, because of how terrible this year has been, this only increased fans’ desire for more from Melanie Martinez.
Melanie alluded to more music being released since promoting her album, film and tour for “K-12.” She teased the name of the EP during encore performances, and she confirmed they would be released in line with the thematic material of “K-12.”
Throughout 2020, she teased the release of “After School” through Instagram stories and two singles she dropped, which were implied to be part of the tracklist. It was initially set to release in spring, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she delayed the release of her EP as well as the third leg of the “K-12” tour.
On August 30, Melanie posted a surreal photoshoot which alluded to “planting seeds to [bear] fruit at the beginning of Libra season.” Someone suspected that Melanie would release “After School” on September 25, as September 23 is the start of Libra season and artists tend to release their music on Fridays. Melanie liked the comment and said nothing else about that.
On September 15, Melanie posted another photoshoot where she sat in a large nest with colored eggs. The caption mentioined “[holding] onto these eggs [until] they’re ready to be hatched next week.” Zinnett Hendrix, one of the actresses from the coinciding film for “K-12,” further alluded to “After School” dropping that week.
As predicted, “After School” dropped on September 25. Melanie released “The Bakery” as the leading single, as well as a music video that featured a cameo by Melanie’s childhood friend Jacqueline Molina.
Like other Melanie Martinez stans, I anticipated the EP since its implied release date. I frequently checked Melanie’s Instagram for updates, even when I was physically and mentally at my worst. When the lockdown initially drove me crazy, I had the release to look forward to. I binge-listened to both of her albums as I tried to cope with the world, and I expected the EP would grant me that same escape.
That is the toxic thing about expectations, though. When what you want inevitably falls short of them, it can be easy to perceive it as garbage as a result.
So, when I first listened to “After School,” I did not love it immediately. In fact, I was initially dreading this planned review because I thought it would start with me saying, “Honey, no.”
However, I gave it more listens to properly establish my feelings about the EP. I felt like I embodied the Kombucha Girl meme after listening to it again. I cringed from what I first heard, but after giving it time to set, I realize it is better than I initially gave it credit for.
That being said, there are significant problems with this EP, and the good elements cannot fully redeem it.
Standout tracks are “Notebook,” “Field Trip” and “The Bakery.” The lyrics and musical production balance both the callbacks to “K-12” and the ties to Melanie’s real life.
“Notebook” is an appropriately sassy break-up song about an immature and noncommittal partner. “Field Trip” is an upbeat flex anthem where only Melanie can use her life path number as a clap-back.
“The Bakery” was destined to be the highlight from the start. It reflects a confident direction in her music as well as a promising team-up with a new producer Blake Slatkin.
“Test Me” and “Brain & Heart” were where I got worried. The sound was not what I originally expected for the EP. However, I vibe with them more than I did the first time I heard them.
“Test Me” is comfirmed to be the bridge between Melanie’s current music and what to expect on her third album. It is ultimately a song about accepting that you are human, but you can take on any trials in life and come out of it a better person.
“Brain & Heart” is a better-produced version of “Piggyback.” Whereas one was a Soundcloud-exclusive song released to vent her emotions amidst controversy, “Brain & Heart” feels more polished in comparison. When your career begins with describing yourself as “[replacing] your brain with your heart,” finding the balance between them further shows Melanie’s growth as an artist.
But then, she makes confusing decisions with the songs “Numbers” and “Glued,” and it feels like we went back to square one.
“Numbers” is an infectious jam that calls out the superficial pursuit of fame and money within the industry, which leaves artists like Melanie feeling exploited.
The song had me until the end, where Melanie’s singing sounds like strange caterwauling. For the life of me, I do not know what she was trying to achieve with that. It sounded less like her showing off her vocal abilities and more like how I sounded when I realized I needed to write a review of this EP.
“Glued” is the song that I dislike the most. It is a “love” song that acknowledges how overwhelming Melanie’s emotions and attachments are. However, like some of the sound effects in “K-12,” the ones used here coat the song with unneeded extract. If there was a word to describe the reverse effect of ASMR, that was how I felt listening to it.
This is what I mean when I say “After School” meets in the middle: it combines the problems from both “Cry Baby” and “K-12,” and it creates its own hodgepodge of problems.
“After School” has similarly juvenile symbolism from “Cry Baby.” It wavers from spiritual lyrics such as “magic talks without talking” and “I beg to be tested by goddesses” to descriptions like “sticky, sticky, stuck” and “melting icy cream.” It not only feels inconsistent, but it also feels incredibly lacking.
In the same vein, it borrows some of the clunky musical production from “K-12.” While Melanie’s voice is left alone for the most part, the music is heavily reliant on sound effects such as thick dripping and calculator noises. Compare that with Slatkin’s production on “The Bakery,” it could mean her collaborativie potential with long-time producer Michael Keenan has become stale at this point.
As a result, it muddles the transition Melanie wants to make from her current era of music to the next. When seeing her image now compared to her original aesthetic, you can tell she has made tremendous growth as an artist. But with “After School,” it comes across like she is stuck in creative limbo. I should not have to tell you she has grown by extoling her virtures. Her music should show you that to start with.
What hurts “After School” the most is the exclusion of two songs that were initially teased to be on the EP, which would have significantly strengthened it as a whole.
Melanie released “Copy Cat” on February 10, and it features a guest verse by North Philadelphia rapper Tierra Whack. On June 26, Melanie released “Fire Drill,” which was featured in the end credits of her tie-in film. Both were teased to be on “After School,” but were scrapped for unknown reasons.
It should be mentioned that both songs are heavily implied to be a response to the sexual assault allegations made by her former friend Timothy Heller in 2017.
“Fire Drill” is about people’s desire to seek attention over being authentic, and it allegedly likens Heller’s actions to pulling the fire alarm when there is no fire.
“Copy Cat” is about people in the music industry who leech off of others to compensate for their lack of originality. One reason people discredit Heller’s allegations is the theory that Heller tried to gain something from Melanie and shape her artistic persona through their friendship. It does not require a lot of stretching to suspect Heller is the alleged “copy cat.”
The reason why I bring up the allegations is that they relate to what Melanie’s EP is about. She wanted “After School” to be an intimate look into who she is outside of the Cry Baby character. While the EP has ties to the imagery in “K-12,” this is the first release since “Cry Baby” where Melanie delves into her personal life.
I find it confusing as to why she would omit those two songs. Whether you believe the allegations or not, they will always be the elephant in the room when discussing Melanie Martinez’s public image. “Fire Drill” and “Copy Cat” address it directly rather than ignore it. These songs are as personal as one could get, and including them would show how much that experience shaped her as a person.
Not only that, but both songs are her strongest out of the entire tracklist. “Fire Drill” is the conclusion we should have gotten on “K-12” but did not. “Copy Cat” is an assertive commentary on manipulative wannabes in the industry, and having an up-and-coming rapper like Tierra Whack back you up shows that you still have a community that supports you.
Without those songs, it robs “After School” of the formative life experiences Melanie wished to convey. It feels hollow and unpolished without the necessary lynchpins holding everything together.
While “After School” is still home to plenty of bops in Melanie’s discography, this is the first time I do not feel the need to purchase a new release of hers. I will cultivate my own playlist whilst excluding a few bad apples from the EP, and I hope that her third album shows the consistent, polished creativity she is capable of.
In the end, the best summary of “After School” is what Stephen King once said about his debut novel: the final product is akin to a cookie a first-grader made. It is lumpy and a little burnt on the bottom, but it is just delicious enough not to throw away.