Why Make Sense? falls a bit short of the high standard set by its predecessor, In Our Heads, but it's still a wryly creative release by a brilliant group.
In their music videos, English synthpop outfit Hot Chip have done a lot of crazy things. In "Boy From School", the members of the band find themselves all used as part of a bizarro art installation. The infamous "I Feel Better" video depicts Hot Chip as a corporate boy band being destroyed by a giant, laser-emitting floating head and a figure that some have called "Bald Cancer Jesus". Most memorably, the sci-fi hodgepodge that is "Night and Day" from 2012's In Our Heads, the group's best single to date, Terrence Stamp looks directly into the camera and asks you, the viewer, "Do I look like a rapper?"
Because of this videography of oddity, it's only natural that Hot Chip round out their sixth LP, Why Make Sense?, with the query, "Why make sense / When the world around refuses?" This song, which grows increasingly erratic and stuffed with layers of noise as it comes to its and the album's close, works brilliantly as an encapsulation of the Hot Chip ethos: have fun, and don't care if you're being goofy to the point of being incoherent. Sure, watching boy bands get destroyed and then resurrected by beings who wield the power of laser beams isn't necessary to enjoy "I Feel Better", but the tune sure gets kicked up another notch because of it. As accessible as this band's music is, one also has to commit to entering the realm of the unexpected when putting on any of their LPs.
Yet this absurdity, indicative of a childlike wonderment, does not mean that Hot Chip's style is one of immaturity -- far from it. In fact, one of the primary successes of in Our Heads is how, random Terrence Stamp cameo notwithstanding, the ultra-danceable rhythms are joined by lyrics that reflect adult themes such as commitment, fidelity, and communal love. Where Why Make Sense? has its free-spirited title track as a bookend, In Our Heads has the joyous "I Have Always Been Your Love", which features simple yet earnest admissions like "I've always had your back." Six songs prior to that, Hot Chip were laying down the thickest, slinkiest groove of their career in "Night and Day", yet by the end of the album the grime and sweat of the dancefloor has been rinsed away, leaving the listener refreshed, washed clean by a perspective on life that's optimistic and, most importantly, mature.
In Hot Chip's musical world, no-holds-barred zaniness is not anathema to adulthood. They, in fact, are ideal bedfellows. Why Make Sense?'s lead single "Huarache Lights" illustrates this splendidly with the lyric, "Machines are great but / They're best when they come to life." These chaps can both enjoy pretending to be robots and being normal, kinda geeky-looking adults making dance music.
This balancing of maturation and free play in Hot Chip's body of work carries over seamlessly from In Our Heads trio Why Make Sense?. On this record, Hot Chip do what most bands at this stage of excellence do: focus on refining a pre-established sound to an even greater degree. In Our Heads is a tough act to follow, as it stands as the encapsulation of the sound that has been developing since the early '00s, kicked off by the 2004 debut Coming on Strong. Wisely, the band doesn't try to merely ape Why Make Sense?'s predecessor, nor does it radically change things up merely for the purpose of being different. Instead, it offers slight but significant variations on previous themes, emphasizing areas of genre exploration that were heretofore less developed.
Case in point: disco. The dream of the '70s is alive and well on Why Make Sense?, with the mirrorball-lit chorus of "Dark Night", the hip-shakin' rhythm of "Started Right", and the tasteful incorporation of strings on "Love is the Future" all hearkening back to the days of flashy hairdos and even flashier clothes. The latter of the three, the best thing on this disc, is also one of Hot Chip's strongest compositions to date, due in large part to its eclectic structure. Herky-jerky rhythms, thumping upright bass, the aforementioned strings, and even a guest rap from De La Soul's Posdnuos all coalesce into an inventive little ditty that concludes with one of those life-affirming choruses that this group does so well. "Our love is the future," vocalist Alexis Taylor sings, "I thought we would never see."
The heightened conviviality here is no mere happenstance; Why Make Sense? is the first of Hot Chip's records to be recorded in a full live band configuration. Singer and synth player Joe Goddard told NME that the record was made rather quickly in this setting, with most of the songs taking only a few days to write, saying, "We try to work really quickly so we don’t work the life and soul out of it." If that was the goal, then Hot Chip can throw up the mission accomplished banner. Much like In Our Heads before it, Why Make Sense? executes one of the band's strongest selling points: their ability to marry the physicality of a rock gig with the colorful sonic palette of electronic music. I was fortunate enough to catch a Hot Chip gig in Portland some years ago, and to hear the transformation of cuts like One Life Stand's (2010) title cut was astounding. The keyboards hit with the punch of a good metal riff -- albeit one you can dance to.
Yet as it often happens when a group refines a well-established sound, there are many cases on Why Make Sense? where things feel a bit too comfortable for their own good. "Cry For You", the simplest number on here, relies on a repetitive call-and-response verse that wears out its welcome fairly quickly. Second single "Need You Now" makes it a little more than obvious that these guys really loved the last Disclosure record. Moments of relative weakness like these are fairly easy to forgive when the rest of the tunes are up to Hot Chip's regularly high caliber, but they nonetheless remain a few easily shrugged-off potholes.
But where uninteresting simplicity makes "Cry for You" a dull moment, it's the saving grace of centerpiece and hilarious slow jam "White Wine & Fried Chicken". As Benjamin Aspray notes in his review of Why Make Sense? for Slant, this silly ditty is a sort of spiritual successor to Coming on Strong's "Crap Kraft Dinner", a similarly-minded ode to finding deep romance in the mundane. "Your smile is resisting," Taylor sings to his beloved as he accepts the titular dish, "But it's starting to sway." Musically, "White Wine and Fried Chicken" most distinctly evokes the awkwardness of a senior prom slow dance: a couple swaying with arms around shoulders and waists, doing their best to muscle past the awkwardness. With Hot Chip, though, it's hard not to do anything but grin and sing along, maybe along the way actually being able to find romance in that unremarkable alimentary combo.
"White Wine and Fried Chicken" is where Why Make Sense? represents band's most distinct step forward at this time. In Our Heads is the beautiful union of Hot Chip's oddball personality (the Stamp cameo on "Night and Day") and their lyrical camaraderie ("I Have Always Been Your Love"). On Why Make Sense?, the oddity is toned down in favor of the celebration of the simple and domestic pleasures in life. This isn't to say, however, that Hot Chip have stopped being the odd eggs that they are. So long as the world keeps refusing to make sense, so too will Hot Chip.