It took a while (at least in internet time) for me to get around to sampling the new Hilary Duff album, because...well, first of all, because it's Hilary "I Killed Joan Of Arcadia Dead" Duff. But a bigger reason had to do with the title of the record: Dignity.
If it's true, as Edward O. once remarked, that teenpop albums tend to be about identity, then we might add that around the second, third, or fourth albums, such teenpop stars tend to continue that narrative with a title or concept about growing up and possibly out of that original identity -- and towards, of course, some sort of "authentic" "maturity." In the 80s, Debbie Gibson came from Out Of The Blue to Electric Youth to Anything Is Possible to the allegedly more integrated Body, Mind, Soul; today JoJo has already accelerated from a self-titled debut to The High Road and promised/threatened that her third album won't be released until she's eighteen, so that her music can "grow." And while Ashlee Simpson (Autobiography; I Am Me), Amy Diamond (This Is Me Now; Still Me, Still Now), and Lindsay Lohan (Speak; A Little More Personal) seem a bit arrested, we can expect all their third albums to be called something like Me More Mature).
Given this naking/conceptual pattern, I initially rolled my eyes at Dignity: clearly, I thought, this was Hilary's clichéd Me More Mature salvo. It didn't help matters that, for the cover, Ms. Duff seems to be trying to look like Angelina Jolie...'s grandma.
As it turns out, although Dignity, as an album title, is still obviously meant as a kind of statement about Hilary's newfound whatever, the song that gives the record its title is nothing of the sort. It's rather a reasonably sassy number about a Jimmy Choo-wearing material girl who has no dignity, having lost it "in the Hollywood Hills." The fish-in-a-barrel thing to say about this "critique" is, of course, "um, kettle?", but at least the song, to my relief, isn't a dreary ballad about Hilary's tremendous Gandhi-like grace.
Once I got past that title, I discovered an electropop album that thankfully exhibits few signs of a tedious obsession with self, growth, maturity, dignity, blah blah blah fishcakes. (Indeed, the whole album only boasts one cringeworthy "self-empowerment" number -- "No Work, All Play," which wrongheadly insists that "you gotta know yourself to be yourself.") Now, it's not a great album. It's quite, quite enjoyable in parts, but for me Dignity isn't "an American version of Rachel Stevens' Come And Get It", 2007's best album thus far, or even destined to be this year's underappreciated electropop gem a la Holly Valance's State Of Mind, Dannii Minogue's Neon Nights, or Rachel's record. (There are a couple of what I would like to pretend are shout-outs to Rachel and Xenomania, though: on "Between You And Me," Hilary declares that her love is "not up for negotiation," and "Happy" has a twangy guitar line that reminds me a little of Frank's "I'm Not Shy.")
Because, leaving aside Hilary's singing, Dignity is simply not as good as those classic electropop records. The tunes aren't especially memorable, and the lyrics range from run-of-the-mill to insipid ("cause I see danger, danger, danger in your eyes!/There's danger in those eyes!"). The production is often competent but uninspired. For instance, "I Wish" contains a guitar riff that would be quite catchy if it weren't playing the same notes that Hilary herky-jerkily sings as the chorus. But it is, so the song, instead of agilely featuring a tune counterposed against, or underlined by, a muscular guitar riff, simply consists of two clunky instruments making the same point.
But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and there are at least two moments on the album where everything comes together. "Never Stop" has a new wavy synth line and boasts some exhilarating drumming (or an exhilarating drum pattern) -- it's this album's "Funny How," if you really want to continue the Rachel Stevens comparisons -- some of which seems intentionally dissonant, and often stops the song. To some extent, these drums are almost too aggressive for the lyric (about how Hilary will never stop loving us), but they are energetic and outstanding on a record that is oftentimes too staid, production-wise. Meanwhile, "Outside Of You" has the best pure pop melody of the album, one that compels Hilary to start singing with her usual lower register before kicking it up for the more ethereal pre-chorus ("See the funny thing is/You're just as useless as me") and chorus ("I'm outside of you/And I just can't get through"). The lyric -- essentially, "we are both lonely and useless, so what say you that we be so together?") in fact has a kind of wittiness missing from the other words for the album (it's the only song not cowritten by Hilary, so make of that what you will). True, Hilary's voice doesn't have enough personality to quite carry off the middle eight's "I look in the mirror, I see your future, you look good with me" line, and the producers shouldn't have made her sing it twice; but that's ultimately a minor weakness in what is a Rather Good Electropop Song.