There is a point, midway through Jamie Lidell’s eponymous new record, on the track “You Know My Name”, a blistering P-Funk number with a cheeky wink in both title and production to Prince, where he asks, “Is this all I’ll ever be?” The album and by virtue of that the man begs this question because, whilst not definitive, it’s a self-assured career high — something Lidell has long been in want of since 2005’s Multiply.
The intervening years have seen him follow in the footsteps of multi-instrumental chameleons, with Prince and Beck casting long amorphous shadows over his work. Their ability to change gear from album to album has seen them transcend definition, occupying the negative space between the familiar and unfamiliar. However, as Jamie Lidell has consistently striven to reach the high watermark set by Multiply, the line for him has begun to blur between reinvention and identity crisis.
Lidell first came to prominence with the innovative glitch-tronica of Super_Collider, a highly praised, techno two-piece with Christian Vogel. Their music was unique, bubbling with grimy loops, ear-shattering beats and hints of soul. Two albums (and a scrappy solo effort that played along the same lines) later, Lidell took a break from recording that would last five years. In that period he relocated to Berlin, redefining both his live and studio sound, a move which resulted in Multiply, a forerunner to the revival of blue-eyed soul that would invade the airwaves for the next few years, but with something more intriguing bubbling just beneath the gloss of the waterline. It managed to balance his neo-soul leanings with electronic experimentalism and was deservedly lauded.
He followed that with two albums that differed in tone but had a shared ambition. 2008’s JIM was startlingly straightforward, turning its back on his past in favour of paired-down, radio-friendly, soul-pop. It was pointed zeitgeist chasing that lacked innovation and felt like a missed opportunity, appealing to neither old nor new fans. Trying to rekindle what had been lost, 2010 saw the release of Compass, but a large budget and Beck in a producer role couldn’t save it from being frustratingly directionless. The album missed as much as it hit, striving for transformative but ending up as transitional.
Fast forward to the present day. Lidell has relocated again, this time to Nashville, and self-produced an album that, by its very title, feels like a fresh start.
Jamie Lidell wears its lineage on its sleeve. From the shimmering astral synths of opener “I’m Selfish” to the space-dub of closer “In Your Mind”, it’s clear that the processed funk of the ’80s lies at its heart. The slick vibes of Jam and Lewis, the Time and Giorgio Moroder, early Prince and Parliment all echo throughout the album — from tracks like “Do Yourself a Faver” with its haunting P-Funk wobble and “So Cold”, which skirts the edges of floaty ambiance until breaking into straight-up Rick James, to album standout, “Big Love”, which comes off like the bastard child of Miami Vice and the Miami Sound Machine. “Big Love” builds to a gloriously over-the-top climax, teetering on the brink of Triumph-era Jacksons, with all the hand claps, high harmonies and exultant production which that brings, Lidell forcing glittering urgency into a sound that hasn’t been out of the box much in almost three decades.
Of course the album is dogged by some of the same struggles he faced in the past, because while Lidell’s vocals might be the icing on the cake, sometimes they feel like just another layer in the mix. As his work has become increasingly soulful, it’s harder to bridge that gap between the emotional potency of his voice and the emotional impotence of his lyrics. It’s a minor complaint here, because his new direction doesn’t necessitate overt depth (no one ever complained about the emotional truth of Maurice Day), but at best his lyrics strain under scrutiny and at worst they are as vapid and cliched as any mainstream pop.
This lyrical blind-spot does pull sharp focus on the music, so it’s lucky that everything on show here feels devastatingly accomplished, often bringing new colour to something that feels familiar. Shuddering future-funk rises on “What a Shame” only to collide with chopped-up horns, grinding bass and techno mayhem. The ghosts of Bobby Brown and Teddy Riley duel for new-jack supremacy on “You Naked”, a song underscored by synth-throbs and sharp electro-stabs. Most surprising of all is the enjoyably sleazy squelch of “Why_Ya_Why”, with Lidell’s vocals filtered to Dr. John proportions, over silky Cab Calloway horns. Then, just as you’re expecting a dirty southern rap to drop, it closes with a fog of ambient techno.
Jamie Lidell‘s success lies in this warped musical schizophrenia, which pays homage to a litany of influences but doesn’t shy away from its electronic roots, allowing Lidell to craft the finest and most coherent account of his vocal and musical talents to date. Interesting and innovative, it doesn’t feel as needy as his previous outings and is better for it, at last pushing the spotlight away from the gimmicks and allowing him to explore that space in between, leaving you with the feeling that his finest work may still be ahead of him and not just a memory of the past.