Over the last decade or so, online platforms such as YouTube and televised singing competitions on broadcast TV have opened up powerful new paths to superstardom. They’ve given us the likes of Justin Bieber, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Shawn Mendes, to name but a few. Add Pentatonix to the list now, too, an a cappella group of five singers from Arlington, Texas, that skillfully utilized both of these new channels in its rise to fame.
Avi Kaplan, Scott Hoying, Kirstin Maldonado, Kevin Olusola, and Mitch Grassi began their sonic ascent by winning the third season of NBC’s The Sing-Off in 2011. Despite that win, however, the group largely known for its incredible covers of popular songs (complete with beat boxing and vocal “instrumentals”) was soon dropped by Epic Records. Pentatonix took the setback in stride and, deciding that the show must go on, migrated to YouTube.
Six years later, the show is still going on.
Pentatonix’s self-titled fourth effort, a thoroughly contemporary confluence of harmonies and sounds, is its first consisting primarily of original material. The question, of course, is how much these creative tunes mirror the sometimes problematic content filling the pop and R&B genres that serve as the group’s stylistic inspirations.
The sweet-and-tender lullaby “Light in the Hallway” comforts an anxious child with parental promises (“If you’re scared of the darkness, I will calm your fear/There’s a light in the hallway/So you know I’m here/ … You are not alone/You are right at home”).
“First Things First” insists that love is worth more than the material things we sometimes pursue (“Fame, money and the finer things/Found your worth in the following/Addicted to that quantity/ … Don’t you know that everything you’ve ever wanted doesn’t have a price tag on it?”). We also hear, “First things first, you need love, humility/Take away all the animosity.” “Rose Gold” imagines a lustrous, lasting romance (“We could be timeless, we could be classic/We could be stars, we could be rose gold, rose gold”).
Self-respect is the main theme on the post-break-up song “Ref.” The bluesy “Cracked” laments the damage done by a deceiver. “If I Ever Fall in Love” (with Jason Derulo) insists that friendship is just as important as physical attraction when it comes to making love work. And a man on “Misbehavin'” insists he’s staying faithful (“A million miles away, and I’m still thinking ’bout my baby/Ain’t misbehavin'”). Seemingly suggestive lines on “Take Me Home” are probably better heard as a longing for a permanent relationship (“Oh, don’t you forget/That nothing else can matter, ’cause you know where I belong/Oh, take me there/Won’t you take me there?/Won’t you take me home?/ … Heaven knows there’s no such thing as good-bye/’Cause love, love can never die”).
Upbeat album opener “Na Na Na” exults in a life so good you don’t even want to sleep (“Why sleep when my dreams look like reality?”). And in similar insomnia-themed territory, “Can’t Sleep Love” longs for this kind of romance: “The kind I dream about all day.”
Of course, the next line on that track could be taken as sexual, as Pentatonix praises “The kind [of love] that keeps me up all night.” And that guy who wasn’t “misbehavin’? Well, he is drinkin’, and he’s apparently surrounded by people who are indulging their sensual appetites (“Everyone around me is just kissin’ on somebody/ … And I’ve had two too many/but I’m just doing this to pass the time”).
“Can’t Sleep Love” drifts from romance to allusions of sharing a bed. “Water” exhales the late-night longings of a woman aching for a man. She tells him, “I’ll take you higher, take you high/I can make you come alive.” A midnight kiss on “New Year’s Day” seems to turn into much more than that (“Take me all the way/ … No regrets on New Year’s Day”).
What’s the best medicine for nursing a broken heart? “Sing” suggests it’s music. And while songs can offer a cathartic outlet for pain, Pentatonix pushes that idea too far when it’s suggested that “music make[s] you lose control.” “Rose Gold” romanticizes smoking (“Started like a movie scene/ … Tried to play it like James Dean/Cigarettes in my sleeve”). “Cracked” includes a line that could be heard as a profanity (“You left a hole in me, oh Lord!”).
It’s no surprise that a group like Pentatonix began its musical ascent even as Fox’s Glee wound down. Or that its trajectory matches that of the Pitch Perfect movies. There’s a lot of overlap between all of them, sonically speaking.
Frequently, the results on this release are innocent, inspirational messages about love, parenthood and perseverance—themes that are as old-school and winsome as the genre itself. Other times, though, we hear lyrics that are anything but old-fashioned as these five singers belt out baubles about middle-of-the-night booty calls, New Year’s kisses that last till dawn, and a man trying to stay faithful even as he drinks himself stupid.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.