At least Dan Whitford knows what he likes. Bright Like Neon Love, the Australian one man band’s debut album, is an homage to all that was cool and campy about the last three decades: ’70s disco and new wave, ’80s “New Romantic” synthpop, and ’90s eurodance. Then, in a gesture maybe meant to show that he really is serious, Whitford slices through it all with filtered, New Order guitars. That you could listen to Bright Like Neon Love while watching We are the ’80s on VH-1 Classic with the sound turned down and be none the wiser is of little consequence to Whitford. Why let a little nostalgia get in the way of his aesthetic?
In the end it’s Whitford’s sincerity that saves the album. His refusal to get cutesy means that Bright Like Neon Love avoids being a cloying, “ironic” exercise in postmodern cheese. There are no glitterball anthems or vocodered songs about computers here, and nothing life-changing, either. Just some pretty decent pop that you can dance to.
At their best, acts like the Human League and New Order were able to use their electronics and disaffected vocals to achieve a weird kind of emotional resonance. Clearly, Whitford has learned from that model. The icy synthesizers and jagged guitar lines work well with the lovelorn material; these are lonely-sounding songs about being lonely.
“Time Stands Still” has the classic disco beat down cold, and then come the sequencers and analog synths — the kind that go, “weeew, weeew waguugh.” If Kylie Minogue were to start singing, you wouldn’t be that surprised. “Future” is a straightforward dance track with a catchy chorus and a bit of a trick up its sleeve: Midway through, it morphs into a guitar-driven rock song (think Billy Idol, not Billy Corgan). Give credit to Whitford for not making everything sound the same, as it tended to “back then”; “Saturdays” gets a nifty little Tom Tom Club-style funk thing going, which, to be honest, is the only way Whitford was going to pull off a chorus like, “When I’m lookin’ for you / I call your number and I can’t get through” with a straight face. “Going Nowhere” is studded with stop-start guitar that recalls Blondie, while “dd-5” is slick, streamlined neo-disco that approximates a slightly less French Daft Punk.
The farther into the track listing Bright Like Neon Love goes, the more the guitars come to the forefront; and the more the guitars come to the forefront, the more weight the album holds (probably because the synth sounds Whitford uses are particularly wimpy). On “The Twilight” and the shimmering “Autobahn Music Box”, Whitford achieves a satisfying balance between retro pop and contemporary indie rock, much like Jason Martin did on Starflyer 59’s turn-of-the-millennium albums. “Bright Neon Payphone” even goes as far as adding a frenetic, syncopated New Order rhythm. If you were put off by the disco stuff, you may be breathing a sigh of relief.
Bright Like Neon Love was mixed by Philippe Zdar from eurodance duo Cassius, worth noting because he gives the album just the right flair; he obviously knows how to pan and fade for maximum brain/feet effect. With his help, Whitford has created the perfect device for turning your living room into a hip European café. Or watching VH-1 Classic with the sound turned down.