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The Dartmouth
February 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Review: Dominic Fike’s “Sunburn” Fades Fast

Tess Bowler ’25 reviews Dominic Fike’s newest album after seeing him on tour in Boston.

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Courtesy of Tess Bowler

In the third song off Dominic Fike’s newest album, “Sunburn,” he sings, “If it’s not a puzzle, it must be nonsense.” Ironically enough, those lyrics do a pretty good job at summing up my thoughts on the artist’s sophomore endeavor.

At times, the album sounds as if it’s confused and fighting against its own nature, much like the singer-songwriter himself. After gaining a following on the internet in the late 2010s, Fike caught the attention of the mainstream music industry when he had a friend release a set of demos — titled “Don’t Forget About Me, Demos” — that would later turn into his first EP.  At the time the collection was posted, Fike was in jail for violating the terms of his house arrest after previously receiving a felony battery charge. “Don’t Forget About Me, Demos” soon sparked a bidding war amongst music tycoons, and Fike eventually made a deal with Columbia Records for a cool $4 million. 

Although Columbia Records initially adopted Fike’s experimental music — recognizing its success with his early fans — with “Sunburn,” they appear to have reined him in, perhaps to make his music more marketable for the public. At the same time, the label tried to preserve Fike’s essence and unique sound for “Sunburn,” resulting in a contradictory album. Fike’s essence clashes with Columbia’s attempt to manufacture music that is palatable for mass consumption. What else can one expect from such a unique artist forced into a box by the modern music industry?

Both the album and the tour kick off with the song “How Much is the Weed?” Through his typical combination of rap and pop, Fike unapologetically weaves through family drama, failed romance and his arrest, perfectly establishing the purpose of “Sunburn” as a reflection on his adolescence in Naples, Florida. The album’s second song contrasts the opener, a generic pop-punk tune entitled “Ant Pile,” where the manufactured melody tends to overshadow personal, raw lyrics like “I’ve seen you fall to pieces / Seen you completely naked.” 

The most enjoyable song at the beginning of the album is “Think Fast,” which features an interpolation of Weezer’s song “Undone (The Sweater Song).” The song momentarily tugs on the listener’s heartstrings with Fike’s realization that he has outgrown his hometown, but the lyrics are often nonsensical, and the melody is too unoriginal to fully sustain and distinguish the track. “Sick,” the fourth track, is a less complex twin of “3 Nights,” Fike’s first commercial hit. That isn’t to say the track is a letdown — it is an equally energetic, easily relatable pop hit about young love and yearning, with enough of Fike’s original sound to distinguish it from the average noise on the radio.

Then comes a slew of mediocre tracks, the middle children of “Sunburn”: “7 Hours,” “Dancing in the Courthouse” and “Mona Lisa.” Despite all the songs having consistent, lively beats, their melodies sound manufactured and are lyrically void of any real meaning. These songs seem to represent consumable, audience-tailored music — the type that Dominic Fike’s old music used to challenge. At least the general public has some nice, danceable songs to add to their rotation. “Bodies,” the eighth and most ridiculous song on the album, disguises itself with a nice tune, but shows its true colors through lyrics that read like a bad pickup line. It’s essentially a sleazy song in which the artist declares that he would love a girl despite her body count, but also manages to insinuate that if he had gotten this girl pregnant, he could have made her stick around (“If I put a belly on you / maybe could have made it last”). Really revolutionary, Fike!

The titular and ninth track is the crown jewel of “Sunburn.” Fike’s trademark cross-genre sound succeeds most in this song because of its strong storytellings, both through lyrics and melody. He goes back to his Florida roots — musically and literally — to confess that, though he has run from his troubled past, he will more likely than not end up where he started, in the Florida sun; in “Sunburn,” he muses, “When I die, baby, lay me in the sun.”

This passionate centerpiece is then followed by three very distinct but equally strong songs. “Pasture Child” is an unusual story about Fike’s personal, on and off relationship with a sheltered girl much unlike himself; “4x4” is a soft, emotional ballad about Fike’s reflection on fame; “Frisky” is so good, I wish the energetic pop song were an extra minute long; and “Mama’s Boy” offers an unconventional soundscape that details Fike’s feelings of inadequateness in a profession built on “nepo babies” and industry plants (“You’re made of plastic, I’m just blood / When I was born, you were produced”).

Unfortunately, the final two tracks “Dark” and “What Kinda Woman” makes clear that “Sunburn” will end with a whimper and not a bang. Both songs are sleepy, and while they contain some personal lyrics, they are too uninspired to be memorable. Ultimately, “Sunburn” does, in fact, live up to its name, but not in the best way. Most of the album is annoying, similar to a red-hot sunburn, while some songs are so endearing that fans will be showing them off for the rest of the summer, much like a nice tan.

But even before “Sunburn” had even been released, I bought tickets to Fike’s show in Boston on a whim, giving me a chance to also review the concert. I still have mixed feelings on whether the journey from Hanover to Boston was worth it, although it’s easy to positively rationalize any sophomore summer activity in the name of spontaneity. The negatives: annoying fans, the Fourth of July flavored Smirnoff tall boy that cost $19 and the assigned seating of the Leader Bank Pavilion. 

The most disappointing factor of the tour, however, was the set design. A title like “Sunburn” could inspire many different creative directions, and Fike’s team decided to go with what appeared to be an unfinished stage setup, covered haphazardly in cloth. It attempted to be industrial, but instead came off as underwhelming — which, I guess, fits the vibe of the album —  and unrelated to the themes that Fike attempted to convey through “Sunburn.”

Fike’s endlessly redeeming factor, however, is his ability to perform live. His talent particularly shines through when playing his older songs, since he has had time to experiment with the way he plays them. On stage, he breathes new life into songs that were already hits, such as “Babydoll” and “Why,” through mixing them in distinct ways and revamping their sound, adding a new intensity that can only be achieved through live performance. Unlike many modern artists, Fike’s voice is also better live than on the records, and through his on-stage experimentation, he’s able to showcase much more of his talent both vocally and on the guitar. When listening to his more recent, overproduced songs, one can easily forget the unique edge and technical expertise that Fike has had for years. Seeing him live reassures fans that — at 27 years old — the artist is not yet done having his moment in the sun.