This British retro-funk duo has created something unpretentious enough to energize a dance floor at 2 a.m., yet curious enough to suggest there’s something just a tad thornier under the surface.
Hype can be an intoxicating thing. But it can also be toxic. Take a look at the still-nascent career arc of Toronto R&B singer the Weeknd. In 2010, the artist (whose real name, we now know, is Abel Tesfaye) posted three songs on YouTube, which got immediate support from fellow Torontonian Drake, and effusive praise from New York Times critic Jon Caramanica by month’s end. The following March, he released his debut mixtape House of Balloons, which promptly exploded. All of this before Tesfaye had even performed live. Nobody knew who the Weeknd was or what the Weeknd looked like, and that only added a layer of appealing mystery to the sticky, ethereal after parties of his music.
This week, the British duo Jungle releases its self-titled debut, and like Tesfaye’s initial splash, it success has as much to do with context as it does with content. Until about a month ago, we didn’t know that Jungle was comprised of two gents by the names of Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland. That’s because for the last six months all they’ve done is release cleverly branded, irresistible music videos in which they smartly remain behind the camera, featuring profoundly talented dancers instead. They even went so far as to release press photos of the dancers as themselves (see above), creating real problems for caption writers. In interviews, they only referred to themselves as “J” and “T.” Couple this with the effervescent retro funk of songs like “Busy Earnin’” -- a summer jam that would dethrone Iggy Azalea if there was any justice in the world -- and it’s tough to not get caught up in the hype.
Which I clearly have, because we’re halfway through this album review, and have barely talked about the album. Like House of Balloons, it’s probably going to be tough to think about Jungle from a purely musical perspective for a while -- incredible child breakdancer is a tough image to shake -- but I suspect it’s the kind of work that possesses a sort of immunity to manufactured drama or media spin. By writing simple, irresistible pentatonic melodies, singing them almost exclusively in falsetto, and pairing them with the kind of moody, heavily synthesized soul grooves that suggest an unhealthy obsession with Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love album, the duo has created something unpretentious enough to energize a dance floor at 2 a.m., yet curious enough to suggest there’s something just a tad thornier under the surface. It doesn’t live up to the hype at all; it’s just so much fun that it can almost make you forget it was ever there.
Jungle is at its best when its clear goal is to get heads bobbing, like when it argues for the cathartic benefits of endless partying on “Time” – “Don’t let it in / Just let it out / Time and time again.” Or when it leverages the swagger of hardcore capitalists on “Busy Earnin’", explaining how we “can’t get enough” over hooks so insidious that they’d make any bleeding heart understand. It’s no coincidence that both of these songs -- as well as the slinky, lovers-on-the-lam opener “The Heat” -- possess lively bass lines. The duo is stingy with the low end on much of Jungle, preferring to keep its heads and equalizers in the clouds. As a result, the clubbier tracks feel less formulaic, and the record as a whole becomes more substantial.
After “Smoking Pixels", a moody palate cleanser that throws a spaghetti western whistle over an ominous synth bass line straight from Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz playbook, Jungle’s tone begins to shift. The three songs that end the record leave us feeling unexpectedly conflicted. “Son of a Gun", with its soft, clean guitar licks and “I won’t let you down” mantra, is the first sign that the party is winding down. Then there's “Lucky I Got What I Want", which spins a lovely sing-along out of an affair gone wrong. It all culminates quite beautifully with the light, snapping dubstep of “Lemonade Lake", during which an organ trembles just under the surface as the duo harmonizes, “Every day / Every night / I miss you.”
It’s enough to inspire hope that Jungle can take a different path than the Weeknd, which followed its breakthrough with two more mixtapes of diminishing returns, and a major label debut in 2013 that sold well, yet reeked of fatigue. Now that we know who these guys are, and have heard what they can do, the time for PR is over. All we'll need to stay hyped is more of this.