I thought One Life Stand would surely stand the test of time as the acme of Hot Chip‘s love affair with love. Just look at that title! With its lush, soulful electro-pop about monogamy and brotherhood, it seemed to set a benchmark that I didn’t think the band would try and beat. And yet.
Hot Chip’s fifth album, In Our Heads, brings back a more light-hearted, light-footed aesthetic to their music, whilst simultaneously advocating even more sincerity and commitment. For Hot Chip, all is full of love. In the year that we’ve lost Donna Summer, here is a band who still feel love—for their families, for their peers, for the sheer process of making and enjoying music.
You can think of the opener, “Motion Sickness”, as their open letter to the pop music they digested as kids and then aped as adults. “Everything spins on my head / On my compact disc”, sings Alexis Taylor, the more softly-spoken of the band’s two frontmen. Note that it’s a CD, not an LP, about which he waxes nostalgic. “Remember when we both first felt / The world of sound…The wall of sound”—the reference to Phil Spector is as warranted as it is casual. The music behind him is exhilarating, with parps of artificial brass breaking above squiggly synths and a firm-footed beat derived from northern soul.
A few tracks later, “Don’t Deny Your Heart” beams in bright chords from a Roland Juno 60 and quirky vocal samples, punctuated with high-life guitars. Atop this playful backdrop, the lyrics make light work of intoxicating hedonism, the chorus commanding us, “Don’t deny your heart / don’t destroy your heart”. Later on, there’s even a tropical percussion breakdown redolent of “Hold On”, from 2008’s Made In The Dark.
For a band who were once ridiculed for their hip-hop and R&B stylings, it’s fitting that “Look At Where We Are” channels the same kind of melancholia as Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River”, albeit with the instrumentation of Timbaland’s productions for Aaliyah. As with so many of these songs, the central declaration of the chorus speaks of the journey serious love goes through, with Taylor cooing, “Look at where we are / Remember where we started out / Never gonna be without each others’ love again”. Near the 1:45 mark, they engage in a bit of vocal pitch-shifting that would be right at home on a Burial release. The fact it doesn’t seem ill-fitting is the perfect demonstration of how Hot Chip amalgamate the classic and the cutting-edge into a timeless kind of pop music they now own.
Elsewhere, there is sheer McCartney- or Wyatt- flavoured tenderness, as on “Now There Is Nothing”, where unquantised retro keys, occasional strings and even a chance encounter with a banjo float through jazzy percussion. Suddenly, the art rock leanings of About Group make sense, if only as a rehearsal space for the main attraction.
At this point, you might think Taylor’s footprints are all over this record, to the detriment of his sparring partner Joe Goddard. “These Chains” sets the record straight. The message might be almost wincingly conservative (“My love is right for you…I save my eyes for you”), but what could look po-faced is lifted by skipping 2-step drums, Goddard’s chasm-deep voice, a palette of restlessly murmuring bass tones, and more of those Burial-esque vocal samples, twisted beyond parsing.
“How Do You Do” manages to combine the thumping, clattering rhythm of Detroit techno with holidaying synths and steel drums straight from the carnival, all set to a descending wonky bass-line. The backing vocals in the chorus, provided by the bearish Goddard, could pass for a lullaby sung for a baby. It’s this juxtaposition of tenderness and solidity, which could be mistaken for irony or naïvety, that now makes this band masters of their craft.
The Balearic and French-touch vibes permeating through the gorgeous “Let Me Be Him” are another sign of Goddard’s indelible stamp; ditto the pacy house of “Ends Of The Earth”. Wandsworth’s answer to Derrick Carter might not step up to the microphone much on this album, but his contributions to the mechanics of its dancier selections are just memorable. Same goes for his encyclopædic knowledge of modern trends in electronic music, which get integrated into the mix (as on “Look At Where We Are”) so seamlessly they’re easy to miss.
I spoke of the light-heartedness on In Our Heads—a strand of the band you might have missed in the intervening years since their début, Coming On Strong. Even the most commanding track, lead single “Night And Day“, rises above its dancefloor provocations by dint of Alexis Taylor’s comic spoken-word bridge, and the Bee Gees-aping vocal inflections in the chorus.
In the end, Hot Chip’s collision of the age-old and the boxfresh is a reminder of why the best pop music sounds so timeless and graceful. Listen to Taylor’s sanguine take on commitment in “Ends Of The Earth”, and he’s channelling Donna Summer as much as Beyoncé. Every time an earworm crops up that reminds you of an obscure 7″ on an underground label, you have to remind yourself that it’s probably been done before, a few decades ago. That they manage to juggle all these different hats, whilst writing about monogamy and contentment in a singular but stressless way (maybe that’s a consequence of those unresolved, cautionary strings right at the end of “Always Been Your Love”), makes this album a real achievement. The sophistication of In Our Heads makes even One Life Stand look like the work of amateur auteurs. This is an album greater than what we could have deserved.
In Our Heads by Hot Chip is released on 11th June, via Domino Records.