For me, I have to face the facts: there is no way I will ever see Hot Chip just as a really good synth-pop outfit. First impressions leave indelible marks, and the one I had with these guys was well… quite something. As a latecomer to the Hot Chip express, my first encounter happened upon viewing the “I Feel Better” music video which, as anyone who has seen it knows, is one of the most ridiculous set of images ever captured on film. For those not inclined to click the hyperlink, let me sum it up as concisely as possible: an attractive boy band, in a futuristic concert hall jam-packed of adoring fans, gets killed by a “bald cancer Jesus” that shoots a laser out of his mouth, only to be resurrected in smart white suits, only to get killed again by a giant floating head that shoots lasers out of his eyes. (If you haven’t clicked on the link now, I think you’d have to be insane.) The video is such a spectacle that for awhile I didn’t give the music much of a thought; it was so necessarily bound up with the nonsensical music video I heard it in that I couldn’t imagine there being something of greater substance underneath. What a surprise, then, when I actually pushed past my (frankly understandable) preconceptions and took the time to listen to 2010’s One Life Stand. I found not an album of bizarro sci-fi encounters but instead a collection of insightful, well-written songs that nevertheless brought the hook. For all of Hot Chip’s emotionally deep lyricism, they’re a dance band too, and they can bring a tear to your eye just as well as they can make you throw down some moves on the club floor.
It’s that precise balance which becomes the key component to the success of their fifth studio outing, In Our Heads. Right from the get-go this sounds like a party: along with copping the riff from “Another Brick in the Wall”, opening cut “Motion Sickness” blares declaratory horns, signifying a grandeur that pervades the following ten songs. Fortunately, “Motion Sickness” does no disservice to In Our Heads. This is an immensely fun recording, full of all the exuberance, wit, and heart we’ve come to expect from Hot Chip. “I only want to be your one life stand,” co-vocalist Alexis Taylor sang on One Life Stand‘s title track, a corny but nevertheless meaningful declaration of consistency, one he and his fellow musicians live up to with aplomb here. The “I Feel Better” video may have depicted Hot Chip as a four-piece boy band, in reality these are just an ordinary, nerdy-looking group of honest musicians whose skill in songwriting has reached its peak. Though my opinion isn’t quite etched in stone yet, I’d venture to say In Our Heads could be the best thing we’ve heard from them.
A large part of this is the emphasis on mature lyrical explorations. Hot Chip’s past dancefloor-friendly material has explored sex and partying just like any other dancefloor-friendly band ought to, but those lyrics take a backseat to some genuine heart and soul. The one track that succumbs to the baser of lyrical tendencies is the lead single “Night and Day”, which for my money could end up being the best song of the year, for two reasons. First of all, THE BASS. There are few impulses in the human body I could imagine that could restrain any urge to dance upon hearing the rubbery bassline. This is without a doubt the best single Hot Chip has put out, trumping even the absurdity of “I Feel Better” or even the strong material on The Warning. Second, director Peter Serafinowicz has topped the “I Feel Better” with the film done for this cut. If a group can get a legendary actor like Terrence Stamp not just to star in their music video but also to stare with his steely gaze into the camera asking, “Do I look like a rapper?”, I think they could retire happy. If I ever had the chance to meet Hot Chip, I would fashion a plaque with Stamp’s face on it to immortalize the work they’ve done here. It’s ridiculous, no doubt, but it’s damn mind-blowing at the same time. You almost forget that buried beneath the bass, the disco chorus, and Stamp’s brilliant cameo is a pretty straightforward sex jam.
I could sing the praises of “Night and Day” for the rest of the space here and call it quits, because I’ve listened to the thing on loop since receiving my promo, but a good single does not a great album make. While “Night and Day” may be musically and lyrically distinguishable from the majority of In Our Heads, it’s not out of place. There are plenty of other cool or humorous experiments throughout the emotional songwriting, like the newsroom synth opener on “Ends of the Earth” or the LCD Soundsystem-esque “How Do You Do?” Where the core of In Our Heads can be found is in the slower, more reflective tracks. “Look at Where We Are” is a real beauty, and a noticeable departure in being driven primarily by guitar than synthesizer. That song, along with “How Do You Do?” also reflects the continued lyrical interest the band has with Eastern spirituality. “A church is not for praying / It’s for celebrating the light that bleeds through the pain” and “From the deep silence of my mind / Is something I’m trying to find” are two such examples, showing the choice of broad theme of mystery in love and life. Much could be written on Hot Chip’s use of mystery and universality in their lyrics; the common threads of human experience are the focus here, though the threads that are pulled apart and examined are often the most confounding ones. In Our Heads, despite its appearance as a particularly good indie synth-pop record, is a strongly philosophical album, one that can goof off in sex talk one minute only to get into the very heart of humanity in the next.
“Always Been Your Love,” the grand finale, is likely the most distilled form of the message of In Our Heads:
When I think of all the places we have been
I don’t know if I have been another thing
In our heads there’s always been a dream of all we long to belong to
I don’t know if I will be the same again
“I don’t know” are the three most important operating words there. The lyrical desires of the song are obvious: true love, friendship, and loyalty. But those things aren’t easy, as we all know; any one of those topics has been pried apart and examined by philosophers and writers as long as we can remember. One of the tenants of many Eastern philosophies is the emphasis on the journey rather than the destination, and it’s that tenant I maintain is a perfect description of why Hot Chip works. They don’t provide definite answers, and they don’t pretend to be anything they aren’t. What they do is write music that doesn’t stop at making you dance; it gets right to your heart. In Our Heads is proof that Hot Chip are succeeding on their consistently impressive musical journey, and as far as I can see there’s still much to be learned from these songwriters.
If that doesn’t convince you to go out and get In Our Heads right this second, I’ll say it again: they got Terrence Stamp to ask if he looks like a rapper.