The first thing you notice about Mo Troper's music is how catchy it is. The second is its vitriol.
The Portland power-pop musician's last album, 2017's Exposure & Response, crammed a menagerie of unpleasant characters into its 30 minutes, from politicians to underachieving musicians to spoiled college kids coasting on their diplomas. Troper had withering words for all of them.
But he's done hating people—for now.
"There was a lot more cultural commentary on that album, and I think I've lost interest in that kind of writing," says the bespectacled, shock-haired singer-songwriter.
Troper's third album, Natural Beauty, comes out on Feb. 14. Appropriately enough, its first few singles have been love songs. While Troper calls the characters on Exposure & Response "Frankensteins," the songs on Natural Beauty are more about real people and real incidents: being moved by a karaoke song, finding puppy love on an Internet gaming forum, eating burritos.
Related: Mo Troper's Exposure & Response Is a Love-Hate Letter to Rock'n'Roll
Troper likes popular things—Marvel movies, Star Wars, video games, and, of course, pop music.
"I'm not interested in playing music that isn't melodic," he says.
His songs are nothing if not melodic. Troper's short, simple songs recall a time when pop and rock were one and the same, the Beatles were the most exciting band in the world, and a minute and 58 seconds was a perfectly reasonable time to punch out a blockbuster hit. Even when a horn or string section floats in, his music has a meat-and-potatoes simplicity that's refreshing when so much pop tries to be art and ends up being neither.
Troper's pop-rock roots run deep. He comes from a musical family—his mom was raised for a brief period by the Four Seasons' Bob Gaudio, whose 1975 hit "December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)" gets a shout-out on Natural Beauty's "In Love With Everyone," and his dad was a musician who worked with the Wallflowers' Jakob Dylan and briefly recorded for DreamWorks Records.
"My dad had to have the TV on all the time, and it was always some footage of like mid-'60s bands playing on Ready Steady Go! or something like that," Troper says. "I was indoctrinated by that."
Still, music wasn't his main interest for most of his childhood and adolescence, which he spent ensconced in Internet gamer culture (another Natural Beauty single, "Jas From Australia," is about his "first relationship" with someone he met on a forum). But once his high school peers started forming bands, he realized it was something he, too, could do.
"It seemed inevitable I would get into music in a serious way," he says. "But also if I didn't come up in a scene that was cool, it might've taken me longer."
Troper immersed himself in the all-ages music scene as a teen. After graduating from high school, he successfully applied for an internship at the Portland Mercury, where he wrote about the teenage bands he felt were overlooked by local media.
His affinity for the local music scene manifests in a more direct way these days. When his employer, local used-media chain CD Game Exchange, went out of business last year, he and several other employees bought the original location and transformed it into Hawthorne Game Exchange: game shop, record shop, and Portland's newest all-ages venue.
If the songs on Natural Beauty mark a substantive break from Troper's past work, it's in their broader, more lighthearted subject matter. Songs from his previous releases dripped with the antagonism of a hip-hop dis track—or a pan of a particularly terrible band Troper might've authored in his music-critic days.
But Natural Beauty is full of bright, Beatles-y pop tunes. On the single "In Love With Everyone," he sings: "You took me to karaoke/It was my first time/You sang 'December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night).'"
When discussing the song, though, he downplays the familial connection and offers a simpler explanation: "Someone sang that song once at karaoke, and I was just moved by it."
Troper's own favorite karaoke song is the New Radicals' "You Get What You Give," from that brief late-'90s period where rocking frosted tips and wanting to be the next Beach Boys weren't mutually exclusive.
"I saw a video of them playing the song," he recounts. "[The singer's] look, I think it was like a bucket hat, but it's a great pop song."
Between running Hawthorne Game Exchange and recording and promoting Natural Beauty, Troper hasn't had much time in recent months to write songs. His latest project is getting a billboard up to promote the new album. His planned design: a photo of himself eating a burrito, with the caption "I Eat Because I'm Bored," a line from Natural Beauty's opening track, "I Eat."
Clearly, this new era doesn't mean Troper is losing his edge or sense of humor.
"Some of the stuff on the last album feels very confined to its time," he says. "I want to make pop music that's timeless."
SEE IT: Mo Troper plays Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., holocene.org, with Tender Kid and Phone Voice on Sunday, Feb. 16. 8 pm. $10. 21+.