Review of “Pompeii” by Bastille
It is very easy to see Bastille’s breakthrough pop hit as some sort of cheesy combination of Coldplay’s anthemic pop-rock and the latest in electronic dance music infused alt-pop. However, there is something about “Pompeii” that just sounds perfect. It captures the pop music zeitgeist and there is just enough lyrical thought behind the analogy of the volcanic destruction of Pompeii by Mount Vesuvius and a relationship in ruins, that it does make the listener think just enough to make a moment of pop brilliance. Dan Smith and his band Bastille may never quite reach these heights again, but they have created their pop-rock masterpiece.
That massive vocal chorus sound that kicks off “Pompeii” certainly grabs our attention and sounds like nothing else on current pop radio. It is soon joined by a percussive electronic bass line that reminds us of the long shadow of electronic music pioneers New Order. Finally, Dan Smith’s own voice, heavily reminiscent of the upper range yearning of Coldplay’s Chris Martin, kicks in and you are likely smiling already. He delivers the song’s key line, “And the walls kept tumbling down in the city that we lo-o-ove,” and the listeners swoon.
The darkness descends on a broken relationship just like the lava from Mt. Vesuvius overwhelmed Italy’s ancient city of Pompeii. The vocals admit that it can feel like nothing has changed if the threat is ignored. However, soon everything will be rubble. The song’s other truly great line, the question, “How am I going to be an optimist about this?” is likely to raise another smile. It is difficult indeed to be an optimist in the face of utter destruction.
From the grand choral backing to the martial sounding drums, the arrangement of “Pompeii” is brilliant. Alternative pop-rock has not experienced such a grand sound since Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida,” and “Pompeii” is nearly as intelligent. It’s impossible to avoid singing along here even if it only occurs inside your head. The song beautifully comes full circle in the end with the opening chorus fading into the distance.
With another historical parallel, the band Bastille takes its name from the fact that leader Dan Smith was born on France’s historical holiday Bastille Day. The group released their first single in 2010 and by December that year had been signed to a recording contract with major label Virgin Records. The group had moderate success on the UK pop singles chart until the release of “Pompeii” broke open the floodgates. It reached #2 on the UK pop singles chart and ultimately the song received a Brit Awards nomination for British Single Of the Year. Here in the US the song has turned into a smash across multiple formats. “Pompeii” topped the alternative and rock songs charts while remixed versions have taken the song to the top of the dance club chart. More than two million digital copies of the single have been sold in the US alone. Whether this is just the arrival of Bastille or their peak, “Pompeii” is a pop moment to savor.
“Pompeii” ultimately climbed to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. It reached #3 at mainstream pop radio and #2 adult pop radio. “Pompeii” became the most streamed song of the year in the UK and hit the pop top 10 in many countries around the world. It has sold more than five million copies in the US alone. The remix of “Pompeii” by Audien was nominated for a Best Remixed Recording Grammy Award and the group Bastille were nominated as Best New Artist.
The success of “Pompeii” helped Bastille’s debut album Bad Blood climb to #11 on the US album chart and earn a gold certification for sales. Two more songs from the album “Flaws” and the title cut “Bad Blood” reached the top five on the alternative songs chart, but they failed to have a major pop chart impact.
In June 2016 Bastille released a new single “Good Grief.” It dealt with the serious topic of grieving in an upbeat fashion. The song hit the top 10 on both the alternative and rock radio charts while again being largely ignored by pop radio. Bastille’s second studio album Wild World appeared in September 2016. It reached #4 on the US album chart and #1 in the UK.