Poppy headlined one of the last concerts I saw before the pandemic shut down music venues last year. At Brighton Music Hall in February 2020, the singer, backed by a commanding band, whirled through tracks from her then-recent album “I Disagree,” a wild ride through bludgeoning metal and fussily arranged pop that only became more of an apt soundtrack for the world as it got weirder and grimmer over the ensuing months.
Some artists, content with the knowledge that their music fit a particular time period, would have stood pat. Not Poppy, who released a slew of EPs and singles over the past 18 or so months. “I Disagree,” which featured the eventual Grammy nominee “Bloodmoney,” was reissued with extra tracks, including the hyperactive “Khaos x 4″; her spectral cover of t.A.T.u.’s turn-of-the-century synthop smash “All The Things She Said,” which she’d performed at that February show, came out as a single; she released the graphic novel “Poppy’s Inferno” and an accompanying soundtrack, the unnerving exploration of electro’s outer edges “Music To Scream To.” There were quite a few other singles and releases, including a Christmas EP and a soundtrack for the WWE series “NXT.”
And she’s still going. On Friday Poppy releases “Flux,” a nine-song album that represents what could be called a simultaneous evolution and consolidation of her sound. Singles like the pugilistic “So Mean” and the candy-coated “Her,” which combine chunky riffs with Poppy’s airy yet resolute voice, could have easily slipped into music’s Buzz Bin during the ‘90s alt-rock gold rush; “As Strange As It Seems” places her voice in a fuzzed-out tableau, resulting in an arresting slice of fever-dreampop. “Hysteria” is a triumphant alt-pop song that sounds pretty straightforward at first — although on repeated listens, you can make out what sounds like screams mixed in with the increasingly fractal guitars.
In a July chat with “The Forty-Five” Poppy mentioned that an early influence on her was Veruca Salt’s 1994 “American Thighs,” which she was drawn to as a child because of the heart-festooned dress on its cover. It’s definitely a spiritual antecedent to “Flux,” and it still holds up nearly three decades after its release. (Veruca Salt’s latest album, 2015′s “Ghost Notes,” is similarly stuffed with churning, moody almost-pop.)
Poppy has said in interviews about “Flux” that its process was more songwriting-focused than her previous efforts; she and her touring bandmates recorded its nine songs with the help of producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, whose recent credits include Paramore’s excellent 2017 full-length “After Laughter” and Deafheaven’s just-released move out of metal’s shadows and into the light “Infinite Granite.” Indeed, “Flux” has elements of both those releases; it, like the Paramore album, places its grappling with big emotions under a spotlight that’s almost uncomfortably bright at times, while its more direct song structures let her operate as a pop star on her own terms.
“Flux” also neatly fits into a zeitgeist that’s forming in pop’s mainstream around guitar-based pop, which had largely fallen out of favor after the “TRL” era ended in the late ‘00s. Machine Gun Kelly’s latest album, “Tickets to My Downfall,” takes a detour from his hip-hop career to indulge in speedy pop-punk produced by blink-182 drummer Travis Barker. “drivers license” belter Olivia Rodrigo’s first full-length “SOUR” opens with the jagged “Brutal,” which brings to mind the ‘90s Britpop heroes Elastica; she also topped the charts with “good 4 u,” which received a Paramore writing credit after the fact. And “MONTERO,” the debut full-length by the pop provocateur Lil Nas X, has sterling guitar work all over its 15 tracks, from the opening track’s fingerpicking to the pealing solo that closes out the neo-power ballad “LIFE AFTER SALEM.”
But then, Poppy has long been a diviner of the zeitgeist. She began her career as a YouTube personality in the mid-2010s, and her unsettling videos from that period seem like chilling antecedents to the way car-crash humans can command the attention of the terminally online. Her embrace of nu-metal’s pummeling sounds at the end of the ‘10s presaged the cultural reassessment of the Woodstock ‘99 era and bands like Limp Bizkit. And last year’s “I Disagree” still sounds prescient, the soundtrack to reading an endless stream of bad news. “Flux,” with its sharp focus and even sharper songwriting, could be a sign that the world is ready to focus — even if its residual chaos makes one need to let out a scream now and again.