Two recent electronic albums adopt differing attitudes to the past. One is met with a touch of indifference; the other, a mixture of adulation and castigation.
With One Life Stand in 2010 and In Our Heads in 2012, Hot Chip delivered a brace of albums that documented love, commitment and brotherhood through various lenses lenses of soul- and R&B-inflected electronic music. With an increasing emphasis on consciously live instrumentation, these were gloriously stable albums, in spite of their creators’ prismatic Weltanschauung. Why Make Sense? is more narrow in focus, musically, pursuing three discrete schools of thought: explicitly referential, reverential soul; brash, extroverted synth-powered rock; and the occasional foray into plangent house. One could see this is as a distillation of their myriad styles, or (less charitably) as a gentle reconfiguration of familiar elements.
Bookended by squelchy odysseys into which one should sink one’s teeth, much of the album adopts a distinctly pared-down approach. The drums are mostly played live (by either Sarah Jones or Rob “Grovesnor” Smoughton), with minimal overdubbing of artificial rhythms. The keys take the form of tasteful, leisurely chord progressions rather than intricately programmed sequences. The different elements of the composition are easy to isolate, rather than melding into a glorious smudge, as they did on songs like “Flutes” and “I Feel Better”. A song like “Love Is The Future” best evinces the idea that, in a way, Why Make Sense? finds Hot Chip returning to some of the spirit of their debut, Coming On Strong, which similarly dallied with R&B and R’n’B.
Back then, Alexis Taylor sang, “I’m like Stevie Wonder, but I can see things”. Now, they operate at face value, with Clavinet and ‘bright’ electric piano walking all over certain tracks.
A little like Daft Punk on Random Access Memories, they prise the characteristics of what has worked before and feed these through their own Heath Robinson machine. Not only the characteristics of other artists, but also of their own back-catalogue. For this is perhaps the first Hot Chip LP that references other Hot Chip LPs so liberally and lovingly. The whispered spelling-out of the titular phrase on “Started Right”, and the deliciously gauche fixation on strange traditions in a romance on “White Wine and Fried Chicken”. The album-opener that describes the joys of making and curating music, and the dappled-sunlit-morning electro which follows it. The slight and off-balance curio, “So Much Further To Go”, could be mistaken for a retooled update of “Whistle For Will”. There is the sensation of walking over already-trodden ground.
There are moments when this repertory theatre pays dividends. “Dark Night”, the gorgeous slow-burning centrepiece, recalls high-end studio-polished soft rock and even boasts exquisite orchestral flourishes. “Easy To Get”, with its rousing chant of “Fear doesn’t live here anymore!” harks back to motivational anthems even as it modulates into darker, slinkier territory. Closing out the album, the booming, brawny title-track rides a drum rhythm prised from Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks”, but pairs that song’s giant “F U” with exquisitely-rendered resignation at the mysteries and injustices of modern society. “Why be tough / When strength is just for losers?” Taylor asks, partly in defeat, partly in embrace of his sensitive side.
I’m glad Why Make Sense? exists, but the album represents something of a holding pattern. When Hot Chip decide which specific journey they want to take next, I’ll be delighted.
Jamie XX (né Smith) is a couple of years older than me (i.e. not old) but makes music like he’s soaked up half a century of culture first-hand. While Hot Chip (mostly) refrain from samples but channel their forebears, Smith uses familiar earworms to create genres previously unknown. On In Colour, these samples are taken totally out of their comfort zones. It is a collage of refracted memories: at times as kaleidoscopic as its artwork; elsewhere, a little more monochrome.
The song structures are peculiar, if not devastatingly sophisticated. The opener, “Gosh”, adopts an additive approach, with a late-period Burial beat augmented by snippets of raver instructions, then by a cavernous bassline, and finally by a unhinged, untethered lead synth line. But the conclusion is dizzying—vapour trails of the arrangement fizzle into an unearthed sample from “One In The Jungle”, a 1990s Radio 1 show about the titular genre, giving bottomless thanks to those “around the world… keeping the vibe alive”. At the album’s core lies “Loud Places”, which gushes out from piano-led torch song, teases the listener with brief explosions of gospel choir, balloons into a thumping, rousing anthem with Romy assisting on guitar as well as lead vocals, and then recedes back into a confessional of which Adele would be proud. There is certainly a ‘cut-and-paste’ aspect to how Smith writes music when on his own, albeit that each pasted element is precision-tooled to deliver yearning, or hedonism, or nostalgia.
There have been criticisms levelled at him—of sexlessness and joylessness, of borrowed nostalgia, even of neoliberalism. To those who slap him down, I suggest a little time reflecting on their achievements (or lack thereof). Smith may be guilty of a little appropriation, but In Colour is no exploitative marketing exercise—witness the abandon at play when, say, “Hold Tight” mutates from a nervy, skittering number into pummeling, barrel-chested banger, and when “The Rest Is Noise” spins on an axis the length of Planet Earth to become a world-embracing panacea. Perhaps his ambition is a little naïve—but see how he is also capable of dialing down the grandeur in favour of the intimacy on, for example, “Stranger In A Room” and the restlessly burbling “Sleep Sound”.
The impact of Smith’s restless innovation does wear off, but you’re still left with a startlingly assured debut: well sequenced (with a breathtaking, gut-churning closing track in “Girl”); the occasional curveball (principally, the unreservedly feelgood dancehall of “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”); and an overarching thesis, that the club is the most universal and yet the loneliest place to be. Universal because it unites us in a wave of rhythm as we move and writhe as one; lonely because you have to leave it, and only memories remain.