The development in album art from 2011’s Zonoscope to 2013’s Free Your Mind says something not only about the Amazonian world of pixelated covers that we now live in, but also something about Cut Copy‘s major shift in perspective.Zonoscope‘s somber, surreal cover depicts New York City in the midst of an apocalypse, water pooling about halfway up the Empire State Building and spilling into the streets below. It’s borrowed from a photomontage done by the late Japanese artist Tsunehisa Kimura. The giant, colorful letters (their interiors lapped by Technicolor waves) spelling out the album title on Free Your Mind‘s cover, on the other hand, might well have been laid out by an overexcited teenager tooling around on Photoshop.
That says more than you might think. For though Cut Copy has from its beginning been dedicated to dance-rock — happily situated on that hyphen between genres — one might think of this album as the one where rock is left sitting on the curb outside the club. As a zeitgeisty move I totally get it: dance music is in. (If Arcade Fire is doing it, then everyone should!) Hence the purported euphoria of the colorful cover art. Distancing themselves from their rock influences, however, proves a dicey proposition on Free Your Mind. The tracks most fully invested in the album’s dancy direction end up being the weakest ones. In their past, artists like David Bowie and fellow Australians INXS were dependable sonic touchstones; now, it seems, they are stuck on Daft Punk and Avicii.
But all is not lost: the strongest tracks on the album, “Dark Corners and Mountain Tops” and “Walking in the Sky”, manage to neatly weave in the sounds of dance while retaining the semblance of a real rock band. (If this sounds at all enticing, this is the part where you stop reading and go listen to Zonoscope if you haven’t already.) In fact, the big, lush sound of those two tracks (and their previous album) is what this band should be looking to expand on — not the too-polite rush of blasé dance music.
Of those two tracks, the song “Walking in the Sky” is the most assured and original, calling to mind a brighter, more vivid incarnation of the Verve — with a heavier sound, for sure, but equally alluring. The other song, “Dark Corners and Mountain Tops”, with its shimmery keyboards, bright guitar, and falsetto harmonies, is about as close to the melatonin-induced heights of M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming as anyone could hope to get. (At least part of that praise is thanks to the saxophone that rears its its head from the mix in the coda.) That song also leads the pack in terms of lyrical accomplishment, seeming to be a pseudo-lullaby from father to son.
I am always — often, I know, to the chagrin of many — one to take lyrics pretty seriously. And while it would be awkward, to say the least, to claim that Dan Whitford had any lyrical chops to begin with, he turns in some startlingly sloppy work on this release. A solid example of Whitford lyrics can be seen in the first (and best) track off Zonoscope, “Need You Now”, which manages this neatly uncertain grasp of the world, Whitford intoning “I know we’re going crazy / But I need you now / I know we’re running, baby / But I need you now.” There’s a need there (apologies for the literalism) and a real pulse that buoys up the music it accompanies. The major misstep on Free Your Mind is eschewing those decent lyrical impulses in favor of rather limp and unaccomplished (and repeated!) inanities such as “free your mind” and “shine on,” phrases that should be confined, respectively, to the lexicons of aging hippies and Roger Waters.
It doesn’t help matters any that Cut Copy has a healthy appetite for self-indulgence. The 15-minute “Sun God” tacked to the end of Zonoscope did nothing for me, but I found in my heart to forgive them. A far less forgivable offense is the high number of filler/intro tracks on Free Your Mind — four of them, to my count, under a minute and a half — along with the bloated outro “Mantra”, which might have been fine if not for the suggestion that this album is actually trying to convey some sort of weird ideology. If this album is Cut Copy’s idea of a religious experience, then I’m fine with excommunication — namely, not listening to most of these songs ever again.