Two cuts into Ladytron’s sophomore effort Light & Magic, they drop “Seventeen”, a delicious slice of early ‘80s electro-sleeze with all the right elements—bored, ominous female vocals, a stiff modern-yet-retro dance beat, and a sleazy lyric (“They only want you when you’re 17 / When you’re 21, you’re no fun”). “Seventeen” isn’t just one of the best electro singles of 2002, it’s one of the best singles of 2002 overall.
But how does the rest of Light & Magic hold up? While the nu-electro movement (as it is sometimes called, although most of the genre’s fans cringe at the term) has produced tons of great singles, electro acts haven’t proven themselves to be the most adept album makers. There have been a few notable exceptions, however, namely the genre’s two definitive albums thusfar: Felix Da Housecat’s Kittenz and Thee Glitz and Ladytron’s debut, 604.
Light & Magic might not be quite as consistent or diverse as 604 but fans of that album or anyone who hears “Seventeen” is likely to find Light & Magic to be one of the better and more engaging nu-electro albums. The genre’s hallmarks are present-slick, icy synths, New Order-ish pop, and a set of songs that are sketches-reasons to have a nuanced dance single than to tell any sort of story, basically. Much of Light & Magic sounds like what you’d hear in the early hours of the morning at a hip British club, and is equally well-suited for fast driving on the interstates at night.
Every cut is awash in thick synthesizers (digital and analog, though there are more cold digital synths this time around) and most (barring only the instrumentals) feature either the detached, accented vocals of Mira Aroyo or the breathy, dramatic vocalisms of Helena Marnie. The absence of diversity through the 15 cuts is of course part and parcel of this sound, although the album drags a bit too long for its own good. What helps keep the momentum going through most of the slow spots are the band’s pop sensibilities—even with this fairly limited sonic palate, every second or third song is incessantly catchy: “Evil” sports a thudding, Joy Division-esque beat, “Black Plastic” is pure Human League redux, and “Cease2xist” approaches druggy Hard House. Yes, Ladytron is rooted in a sound two decades old, but Light & Magic is thoroughly modern, based alternately in the dance and indie cultures of today, even if it is adept at fooling the listener into believing it’s somehow retro. Never do any of these songs sound or feel like they could’ve been featured on the dawning days of MTV.
Is there a lot of “substance”, in the classic sense? No, not really, but that’s not what Light & Magic is about. Besides being dance music, much of what Ladytron have crafted here is mood music—made for a type of dance floor transcendence that many attempt, but only some achieve. Even if most of the songs—apart from “Seventeen” and a few others—don’t make an impression on their own, the album has a tense, nervy feel and it sounds great while it’s on the stereo, even if you can’t remember much of it when it’s over. And that means Light & Magic is better than most other electro albums, even if it isn’t as good as their debut.