When mining ’80s pop music for ideas in 2017, most bands are content to borrow the synths and the vocal style and little else. The songwriting doesn’t follow. Equipment in the ’80s was not what it is now; in the ’80s you couldn’t just open your laptop and have a synthesizer, a sampler, and a sequencer built in.
They were their own pieces of equipment, they were finicky in their design, and if your machines didn’t sound good together, well, you used them anyway, because they were your machines. These bands made do with what they had, and as musicians, they made the machines bend to their will.
The resulting sound was often a methodical one, as the construction process was put on display for the listener. Listening to many of the great synthpop songs of the ’80s — “Just Can’t Get Enough”, “Blue Monday”, and a zillion other things — you get to hear the layers slowly build on top of one another, slowly making their way into the mix, eventually turning into a maelstrom of melodies and beats and chords, all working together despite the fact that they don’t sound of the same universe, much less the same sound library. Where most modern synthpop tends to take the sounds of the ’80s and work in a very 2017 sort of immediacy, Cut Copy clearly found something to love in the deliberate, individual layering of sounds, as it’s a technique and feel they employ throughout
Haiku from Zero. The result is a vibrant but relaxed album that is as rooted in a vintage ’80s sound as any album in some time.
The technique is most effective when there are a maximum number of layers, as the members of Cut Copy can’t help but be in sync with one another five albums into their career. Fully-formed songs are less “busy” than they are “complex”, and that’s a credit to each member’s ability to fill in the mix without dominating it. Opener “Standing in the Middle of the Field” is as good an example as any, starting with Mitchell Scott’s upbeat percussion line and pouring on the melodies from there. First, the vocals show up, then a deceptively simple, syncopated bassline. Then the big sustained synths, with another layer or two of vocals for good measure. By the time the song ends, there’s another synth floating around, a high one that almost comes off like a theremin. There’s another layer of drums. Finally, Tim Hoey’s guitars show up, electric yet so clean they could almost be another synth. The effect is one of constant evolution, even as the chorus repeats and the vocals never more intense than gentle insistence.
That only works if the melodies are strong enough, the beats catchy enough, and the melodies sweet enough to reward the patience such an approach requires. On this front,
Haiku From Zero has something like a 50% success rate — “Standing in the Middle of the Field” absolutely works, “Black Rainbows” is a beautiful little upbeat Cut Copy classic, and “No Fixed Destination” is like the Pet Shop Boys rewriting Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” (in a good way). Add to all of it vocals that lie right in the Erasure/New Order/Tears for Fears sweet spot, and it’s a recipe for nostalgic bliss.
That said, the formula doesn’t work just about as often as it does. “Memories We Share” feels like a pile of good ideas in search of a song; it’s hard to tell if everything’s the chorus, or nothing is, or what. It just doesn’t hold together as well as some of the highlights. Airborne relies too much on an unremarkable Hoey guitar lick. “Living Upside Down is a late-album track that just sounds like it’s doing its best to blend in and fill out the album. Everything is produced well, the performances — particularly the vocals — are fine, there’s just not enough of a hook in these songs to make them anything more than inoffensive upbeat background music.
There are worse things to be than inoffensive upbeat background music, but the highlights hint toward so much more. “Black Rainbows” in particular sounds like the type of song that can be built off of, complete with the kind of energy that makes Cut Copy such a special band.
Haiku from Zero is a statement of potential, but it may just take one more album for the band to reach the sorts of heights they’re aiming for.