A Bathfull of Ecstasy begins with a benediction. “Melody of Love” finds Hot Chip’s lead vocalist Alexis Taylor telling the listener, “All you need to hear / Is moving in the air / All you is need here / It’s moving in the air.” This “it” is the melody of love itself, a feeling that has existed without that specific name for quite some time in Hot Chip‘s music. Songs like “Don’t Deny Your Heart” and “Hand Me Down Your Love” are both minor classics in the love song genre and devotional (yet danceable) hymns which evoke spirituality without the explicit language of religion. “Why can’t I be bright / Like my lover’s light?” Taylor opines in the latter, while in the former he offers the wisdom, “A church is not for praying / It’s for celebrating the light that bleeds through the pain.”
Of the consistent emotional valences in Hot Chip’s music, love is the main constant. And although Hot Chip count to their name a bevy of top-notch love songs – “In the Privacy of Our Love”, “Always Been Your Love”, and “Let Me Be Him”, in addition to the aforementioned two tracks – “Melody of Love” is a warm re-invitation to the band’s aesthetic, which captivates not in spite of but rather because of its familiarity. As Taylor notes on “Spell”, “There is in love / A lot to learn.”
Hot Chip’s last full-length, 2015’s Why Make Sense?, was itself a familiar release of a certain kind. By that point, Hot Chip’s bonafides had been firmly established. However great Why Make Sense? is in moments, it nonetheless doesn’t do much to push the group’s sound forward. More than a few tunes, like funk ditty “Started Right”, feel like B-sides given the high quality of Hot Chip’s songwriting. Coming off the heels of Hot Chip’s finest hour, In Our Heads (2012), that record gives off the feeling of maintaining elevation rather than climbing to greater sonic heights, which seemed like the path the band was taking.
Admittedly, much of this has to do with what one might call “the Spoon problem”: once a musician releases a string of consistently great or at the very least good records, the bar for excellence becomes all the much harder to clear. The run from The Warning (2006) to In Our Heads – which includes Made in the Dark (2008) and One Life Stand (2010) – contains nary a bum LP. Why Make Sense? gives no reason to think that the steam is beginning to run out for Hot Chip, but it does raise a natural question for any act which has reached a career zenith: where do you go next?
On A Bathfull of Ecstasy, Hot Chip finds its answer. Instead of pressuring themselves to explore totally new sonic territory, the five core members of Hot Chip – Taylor, Joe Goddard (vocals and synths), Owen Clarke (guitars, synths, bass), Al Doyle (guitar, backing vocals), and Felix Martin (drums) – deepen their existing sound, going down rather than out. The lush production of the album, in conjunction with the emphasis on positivity in the lyrics, creates an enveloping musical and emotional atmosphere alluded to in the title A Bathfull of Ecstasy itself. Sure, given that Hot Chip is an electronic group and they bound to play a few festivals on their upcoming tour, “ecstasy” could very well refer to the party-starting drug used to brighten up raves the world over.
But as Hot Chip renders it musically, “ecstasy” is a state of being one can achieve with no chemical supplements required. Of course, like the drug which shares its name, ecstasy takes over one’s mental and physical state entirely. Everything one experiences in that state feels like an emanation of that emotional totality; every input – be it a song over the speakers or the drip of sweat down one’s forehead – is a manifestation of the joy within. Throughout A Bathfull of Ecstasy Taylor’s lyrics expand metaphorically on this internal state and ruminate on how the “melody of love” which accompanies the feeling of ecstasy morphs into new sensations and perceptions.
Nearly all of the five senses get explored. On “Echo”, Taylor assures his lover, “I only want to be / An echo of your beauty”, his love aurally transformed. Lead single “Hungry Child” gets its name from a phrase used in its opening line, which likens being separated from a loved one to “waitin’ like a hungry child.” In these and other moments laced throughout A Bathfull of Ecstasy, Hot Chip’s music takes as its subject the loss of sensory control, the paradoxical feeling of jubilation consuming a person so wholly that other senses begin to behave unpredictably. Although not billed as a concept album, A Bathfull of Ecstasy could easily be passed off as one given the conceptual continuity throughout, and how brilliantly the music reinforces the lyrical themes.
That synergy of music and lyrics reaches its early peak on “Spell”, an instant Hot Chip classic. Beginning with a simple yet driving beat, the snare drum a loud snap, the song finds Taylor ominously yet romantically listing a string of imperatives: “Give up your mask / Take me to task / Give me your will / I’m lost in it.” There’s a dark energy to the music that’s unfamiliar for Hot Chip, whose discography leans far more in the direction of sunlight than it does shade. Yet when the main hook of “Spell” kicks off, the tone of the song comes into focus. “Like a spell you are under”, Taylor repeats over and over again. With this number, Hot Chip capture the push-and-pull of falling in love, an experience where one feels free to choose and compelled to act simultaneously – freedom and determinism inextricably bound. The chorus takes the rhythm built up by the hook’s repetition and sends it soaring: “Now I feel your curse / It’s all that I wanted / A memory in reverse / Forever I’m haunted.” The propulsive drive of “Spell” proves so gripping that it sticks around after the song wraps up, so much so that it carries over into the similar light/dark contrast that appears a few songs later on “Hungry Child”.
“Spell” is the standout moment by far, but there are plenty of other brilliant musical tricks throughout the album. The off-kilter rhythm of “Echo’s” opening riff, the strident piano vamp on “No God”, and the brilliantly placed gospel sample near the end of “Melody of Love” showcase the deep creative well from which Hot Chip draws. In the end, the few weaknesses of A Bathfull of Ecstasy – particularly the decision by the band to frontload all the strongest tracks – prove to be minor hitches in what is otherwise a characteristically superb song collection. When Taylor assures us that “All you need is here,” it’s in our best interests to believe him.