The creative and imaginative debut project from the Brooklyn-based pop experimentalists Test Subjects is a confusing, catchy ball of ecstasy and nostalgia.
After releasing a couple of the most fascinating singles of 2021, Brooklyn-based post experimentalists Test Subjects have unleashed the final beast. Study is equal parts fun as it is flummoxing – A project that will keep you scratching your head and tapping your toes, but never pressing skip. Though it was clear that the duo – comprised of classically trained opera singer Melody English and producer Sam Glick – was never going to release something mainstream, Test Subjects truly challenge what music can be on Study. The result is fascinating and incredibly entertaining.
The first half of the release can only be described as a trippy concept album – Perhaps it would be the soundtrack of a Gen-Z remake of Romeo and Juliet. A narrative begins to form during the opening track “Study.” A robotic female voice calls out, “Test Subject 16?” When the subject signals that he’s present, she ominously continues, “We greatly appreciate your participation in the study. Not many people are willing to go back.” From there, Study follows this fictional study as it progresses. Though it’s not always clear if English and Glick are appearing in-character as test subject/lab assistant or as themselves throughout the album, this preamble immediately opens the doors of their pop laboratory.
The next three tracks revisit moments from a teenage relationship with tongue in cheek, sample-heavy moments of pure euphoria. “Boy Next Door,” previously released by the group as a single, finds Test Subject 16 as the object of affection for his doting neighbor. “One Last High School Thrill” and “Group Project” channel the heavy emotions of high school by utilizing familiar sounds such as the thrum of a marching band, the cheers of a pep rally, the bubbling of a science lab, and the clapping of chalkboard erasers. The beginning of the album is a nostalgic cacophony, creatively and effectively pulling together a potpourri of sonic flashbacks to push along the narrative of the album.
The later half of the album is more self-serious, employing fewer gags and gaffes in exchange for moments of genuine and unabashed musicianship. Though some of the levity is lost without the business of the preceding portion, these tracks expose the versatility of Test Subjects. For example, songs “Interstate of Mind” and “Tumbleweed” allow for an indie folk reprieve for each band member with English channeling Waxahatchee in the former track and Glick leaning into the gruffness of Bon Iver on the latter. Though this section of the album certainly sounds different than the campy opening, there’s never a disconnect between the two halves. The entire album explores reflection and memory, both internally and externally. The relative somberness of the later tracks simply adds depth to the project as a whole.
Test Subjects try on influences like clothes in a dressing room, changing from disco, to funk, to Eurodance to country at the drop. At times, the album seems stuck in the past. The next moment, it seems that the group is in direct conversation with contemporaries like Caroline Polachek. Though the sound is clearly in conversation with groups old and new, Test Subjects is unique. English and Glick contribute to the conversation but not without bringing their own ideas to the table. They’re definitely more than your Band Next Door.
So what does it all mean? In the last two tracks, listeners get some clues as to the purpose of it all. On “Television (One Of These Days),” a cascading synth transitions into a poppy guitar phrase. In a chirpy, bubblegum voice, English sings, “Some days I let my life roll by / Watching television / Some days I don’t step outside / It’s like some superstition.” Later, she vows, “One of these days I’ll chase my dreams / I can’t stay holed up here all by myself.” Perhaps the entire theatre of Study is that it’s a staged experiment occurring in a hyper-reality within the world that the band has created. Similarly, the final track, “Party Animals,” which is almost a curtain call of sorts with its gang vocals and cast party energy, further acknowledges the meta-reality present in the album, as a portion of the final track was sampled in the first song. Does the experiment for Test Subject 17 ever end? Did it ever start to begin with? The answers are unclear. However, the journey through the world created by Test Subjects is lined with interesting tunes, fun noises, ASMR textures, and some genuinely touching songs so it’s well worth the journey.
Don’t get it twisted: Although it draws from 50 years of pop music, Study is incredibly creative, occasionally hilarious, and undeniably catchy. It’s also a bizarre, sometimes downright confounding, coming-of-age story and a conceptual depiction of the obsession and repression of the American adolescence. The hypothesis is true: This album is unlike anything you’ve ever heard.