Pop music by nature must walk an almost impossibly narrow path. It must contain enough hooks, earworms, and energy to captivate the masses, but if it overplays its hand just slightly, it veers quickly into a grotesque self-parody. As it has been incorporated increasingly into the mainstream, dance music has come to face a similar but unique conundrum. Dance music has many times been revolutionary and radical as it has provided the soundtrack and the spaces for marginalized groups to transgress boundaries, uniting around the shared bases of physicality and rhythm, of transcendent joy and epic pain. Yet, as its popularity has grown, dance music has also found itself the prey of a capitalist culture that keenly finds ways to appropriate and commodify transgressive forms. The uncompromising, unrepentant rhythms of house and techno can all too quickly find themselves reshaped into the endless chug-chugging of a workaholic Western culture. The beat goes on, in hopes that your productivity will, too.
Enter Harrison, one of Toronto’s newest producers. On his debut LP, Checkpoint Titanium, Harrison makes music that blends pop and dance, retreading the territory mined by similar acts like Disclosure. While the latter duo is more maximalist, and more fittingly described by the near-dystopian vision described above, the similarities are immediate between the two: both artists craft warm, gauzy, yet inescapably plastic electronic sounds that revel in their own shallowness. The shallowness of the sound is, after all, what makes it nimble, but the overall effect of listening is that you feel like you should be shopping in an expensive and trendy clothing store. It’s fun music, but it can also easily fade into the general ambience and encourage you to constantly keep moving (or buying).
Harrison’s music is easily digestible and conforms eagerly to the format of pop music: no track goes over four minutes in length and four tracks are under three minutes, standing in stark contrast with the prolonged, transcendent meditations of many dance tracks. Listeners can nonetheless hear him making an effort to inject elements of unpredictability into his music, attempting to subvert expectations, albeit in small ways. Beats drop away abruptly and wait a moment longer than expected before returning. Throughout “Lotus”, Harrison scatters the unintelligible murmurs of a woman like Easter eggs, seeming to hint at a featured vocal that never actually arrives. The track is like an internal rave, and while its chord progressions feel a bit too familiar, it comes across as playful and evocative.
And yet, Harrison seems to find it hard to commit to one strategy, and elsewhere his music veers too far into predictability. The claustrophobic, suffocating “You and I” is perhaps the worst offender on this front. The track is analogous to the moment late in the evening when you find yourself at a club, and you’re actually really tired of dancing, but a mix of inertia and social obligation have prevented you from calling it quits just yet. So you keep chug-chugging along, like a machine, barely aware of your own movements.
Checkpoint Titanium is at its most successful when it allows itself to fully explore its more sensitive side, to embrace the tensions between revelry and sorrow. “Social Stimulus”, arriving just prior to “You and I”, could perhaps have been placed directly after to better effect. It functions like a welcome cigarette break from the same club: you walk up the basement stairs and find the city streets redolent with rain and mist, and you indulge in a brief moment of somber introspection. The moment ends too soon, though, and you are quickly pulled back into the mass of sweating bodies and overpriced drinks.
“It’s Okay, I Promise” and especially “So Far From Home” are better tracks as well, not so much because they embrace melancholy but because they show off Harrison’s versatility and his ability to collaborate with a variety of artists. The guest vocals from Clairmont The Second and Young Guv, respectively, are vital injections of variety that help save Checkpoint Titanium from becoming an exercise in palatable, upbeat monotony. Clairmont the Second delivers his rap feature with the heartfelt earnestness of a high schooler, which can be taken as a good thing or a bad thing depending on your perspective. On “So Far From Home”, meanwhile, Young Guv revels in nasally, androgynous tones about the rapture and excitement of being lost and displaced, while Harrison provides a jittery, off-kilter keyboard that feels like an inverted accompaniment to “Benny and the Jets”. “Everybody should feel this”, Young Guv insists, in one of the album’s rare moments of real urgency and lustiness (not for sex necessarily, but for experience). The exhilaration of loneliness and disconnection, combined with the seedy feel, make for a startling and memorable track.
When the brief title track closes out Checkpoint Titanium, however, you are left with a peculiar feeling that not only are you back at the same place you started, but there hasn’t even been an arc or a story along the way. This is odd, because in fact the album has a modest amount of variety, as outlined above. Yet Harrison does not do enough to capitalize on his own strengths, and his weakness for generic sound palettes causes the album to sink. He clearly has the talent and ambition to make music that is more than a soundtrack for shopping, and at times there are glimpses of real humanity on his record. Too often though, his music presents itself for the taking to those who would appropriate it in the name of consumerism.