“What happens when people open their hearts?” … “They get better.” —Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood
Before I moved out, I raised baby birds with my father. You cannot understand the fragility of life until you hold something as small, defenseless, and dependent in your palm as a newly hatched baby bird. The thing is so fleshly and little, the veins so prominent, and the body so alien to that of a fully grown canary—we used to raise finches, but my father moved on to canaries after my brain surgery. Holding the bird in my palm, allowing it to rest there and squirm a bit while we banded them, I could see the little creature for what it was and what it would be. These tiny bodies spoke of the future as loudly as they did the present. Music, of course, does much of the same.
Flitting through an artist’s discography is another unique pleasure. When you listen to a debut album, you hold a freshly hatched baby bird in your palm, and you can feel the future radiating in much the same way I felt the future each time the birds’ hearts would beat against the meaty part of my hand. These birds grow up and you see them realized as animals with minds and personalities of their own.
As artists release albums, they grow all the same. Prospecting is mostly groundless, but it is good fun. Prospecting can be disappointing because progress is rarely linear, but for certain artists, they are only ever on the up and up. Of course, there is no prospecting with baby birds—they grow up so long as you feed them regularly—and certain albums follow the same path.
Looking at The Internet’s discography, from 2011’s Purple Naked Ladies to 2018’s Hive Mind, we realize that in 2011, Syd and company placed a tincy, newly hatched chick in our hands. From there, the band grew, changed their lineup, evolved their sound, took solo breaks, and eventually took flight and soared across four studio albums. Each of their records, too, perfectly encapsulates the four milestones between hatching and taking to the skies. Going from album to album, we’ll track how The Internet went from defenseless and darling, to pronounced and untouchable, just like our sweet baby birds.
Purple Naked Ladies
In 2011, we had The Internet hatch with their debut album, Purple Naked Ladies. Everything from the lineup to the mixing to the cover art was fresh and fleshy. We did not have our standard five-piece band. But we did have Syd and Matt Martians ready to take on the world from their dimly lit kitchen. The message sent with the cover of PNL is simple and endearing: this is close-to-the-chest music. The ordinariness of the cover reminds us that now-stars Syd and Martians were once creative and haphazard kids looking for any avenue to channel their energy. Purple Naked Ladies is the byproduct of those late-night conversations, promises made that we’re really going to do this music thing, and we’re going to kill it. Consider PNL the blueprint for bedroom R&B, made on the fringes of Odd Future’s cruder sensibilities at the time.
The electronic, neo-funk opener “Violet Nude Women” is a statement in itself. An instrumental decree, the album opens with a statement of purpose: breaking through as stand-alone artists, and exploring the limits of jazz and funk in earnest. With that, standouts “She Dgaf” and “Cocaine” feature Syd on the forefront, nearly demanding the spotlight with her whispy vocals. The skitter and titter of “Web of Me” proves Martians to be adept at commanding space with his programming, and highlights Syd’s deeper and more affecting singing. “Web of Me” realizes much of the potential of Purple Naked Ladies, and plays as most kindred to Syd's vocal stylings for the remainder of The Internet’s career.
Yet, as with all hatching, the album has some messiness—the transition into “Ode to a Dream” is jarring at best—that gives Purple Naked Ladies a sweetened appeal in hindsight, but frustrated during the immediate relation. The album is textured and fascinating, to say the least, but lacks the cohesion that marks the later Internet releases. Keeping with our metaphor, Purple Naked Ladies is the potential-filled, newborn bird in our palm. We shelter it, and we enjoy it for what it is, but the future is far more developed than the present.
Where Purple Naked Ladies was about breaking through and rolled over as messy and lovable, Feel Good is an all-the-way precious record. The tender and distant opening, the muted colors on the cover, and the leaning into sunny piano lines and guitar riffs make it a fragile and effective transitional record for The Internet. The music is far more precise and hardlined: The Internet have an identity. “Sunset,” in particular, sounds damn near ephemeral. How to grasp something so featherlight and touching? There is a necessary glow to Feel Good, a radiance that suggests lithe energy, growth, and a brighter future.
The jitter of sensuality on “Dontcha,” and later turned steamy on “Shadow Dance,” immediately signals that this album is a cut above PNL, but also suggests that the direction The Internet is traipsing toward has yet to be fully explored. The cascading melodies of “Wanders of the Mind” should be enough to spark excitement for the music to come. Before there was good kid, m.A.A.d city, there was Section.80. Before there was Ego Death, there was Feel Good, an essential in the pantheon of transitional albums. Part of this can, of course, be credited to Mac Miller, The Sanctuary, and the artist haven he created once he moved out to Los Angeles.
Before a baby bird can fly, it must step out of the nest and padder about the cage lining, sometimes losing its footing, but all the while taking on the world for what it is. There’s self-sufficiency required for all manner of flight, and that is what The Internet achieved on Feel Good. They established themselves as a genre-blending force that had a clear direction and artistic intent, and knew how to execute to the best of their ability, with the best still to come. Where Purple Naked Ladies only spelled the implication of a successful future, Feel Good, because of the cohesion and confidence spiked into each cut, did not have to imply. By the end of “Higher Times,” a 10-minute sonic odyssey, we knew The Internet were something special.
“Now she wanna fuck with me” are the first words of Ego Death. Safe to say, in the two years between Feel Good and Ego Death, The Internet took flight. From the first second, Ego Death played as a more assured, sexy, and irreverent album than its two predecessors. Syd’s vocals were dipped in confidence, the band was a tweak away from getting their lineup perfect, and realized that injecting as much of their personality as possible into the songwriting and arrangements would give them an all-time record, neo-soul and otherwise. All the energy and subdued carnal impulse of Feel Good is in bloom on Ego Death.
“Get Away,” “Girl,” and “Special Affair,” alone, represent a new and more forward era for The Internet. Syd’s vocals and meanings no longer get lost behind the instrumentation and guests, which is especially troubling on Purple Naked Ladies. We have made it through both the hatching and growing pains, and now we are peacocking from note to note. As Syd sings “Passion, burning” in her newly sultry tone, we realize that Ego Death is a wonderfully pronounced and assuming album. Everything the band was working towards since 2011, since late-night musings on their future affairs, coalesced finally into this lovely and fluttering thing.
What we have with Ego Death is a testament to growth and pursuit. In truth, Purple Naked Ladies was not beloved, and the band could have pivoted hard to avoid further critique, but instead, they leaned into their direction and made it work. We can track The Internet in this exciting and linear fashion because they worked at that steady and welcome progression. On Ego Death, the band is a fully grown canary, all feathers, chirping, and adoration abound.
It’s not easy to make it, but it’s even harder to stay. Once you fly, the next task is to soar, to maintain and gain in the same turn. After the resounding success of Ego Death, the only question left for The Internet was: How to sustain? The answer came by way of solo albums and time away from the band. Our very own Dylan Green expertly broke down how each of The Internet’s solo albums appears on Hive Mind, but in short, the time away was central to the band coming together as one hive mind. Or, as drummer Chris Smith put it:
“When we first sat down to work on Hive Mind, there was just too many ideas because everybody was just amped and needed to get all of that other creative energy out. Everybody’s ideas couldn’t make the tracks… Steve [Lacy] had already started working on his and so had Matt [Martians], and it just made sense to get that excess creative energy out so we could all come back to the group project with a clear mind.”
Hive Mind took everything The Internet got right with Ego Death, took the space and clear-mindedness, and amplified it. If The Internet defined their direction in 2013, in 2018 they took that definition and made it bold and bright. The album is, as we wrote in our July review, an airtight offering. From the inclusion of a spoken word poem to the expert pivots and percussion breakdowns, Hive Mind takes risks that do not feel like risks, but rather inventive upsells that make the album feel deluxe. They more than lean into their sonic direction; they revitalize it for all time. Where taking flight is dangerous, Hive Mind never feels in danger of falling on its head. This is what it means to soar.
Truly, the band opened up and let their hearts flow to put these polished and striking songs together. The sensual planes Syd traversed on previous records were all the more plush and loving. Her earned confidence was laced into each track, as opposed to peeking out every handful of songs. The textures (“Roll [Burbank Funk],” “Bravo”) and precious nature (“Come Over,” “La Di Da”) of the first two albums also make an appearance, refined and all the more delicate (“It Gets Better [With Time]”) and enticing (“Mood”).
Where Ego Death was about pronounced confidence, Hive Mind is about a pronounced togetherness—and funk. What we learn in tracking The Internet’s discography is that to achieve linear growth, you must work towards what scares you, and hammer at what seems to not be working until it does. To take flight, you must be steadfast—of course, talent helps. The fastidious nature of The Internet, ultimately, is what allows them to have grown into one of the best bands working, and there’s nothing more artful than that.