You come to expect certain things from a Hot Chip album, especially now that the UK group are incredibly in their 18th year of making records. You expect song-based electronic music to make you dance with a grin on your face, first and foremost, which may lead to extravagant displays of affection towards friends. You expect synthpop with a big heart, from a group unafraid to marry radio-friendly hooks and tenderly sung choruses to house beats, hip-hop grooves, and seriously goofy lyrics. Which isn’t to say the London-based five-piece don’t keep it fresh on each album because they do. That’s whether by sampling the drawl of Todd Rundgren, the chanting of Buddhist monks, or by collaborating with French house pioneer Philippe Zdar.
Hot Chip continue to keep it fresh on their eighth studio LP, Freakout/Release, as they build on their catalog of celebrated floor fillers, Mercury Prize and Grammy nominations, and tireless comparisons to the Pet Shop Boys as the UK act to have successfully bridged the worlds of pop and dance. They sample a little-known disco band from 1980-era Chicago, for one thing. They also team up with Canadian rapper Cadence Weapon, British DJ Lou Hayter, and Belgian production duo Soulwax. But, more significantly, they harness a newfound band dynamic and improvisational spirit gained from working in their newly minted Relax and Enjoy Studio in East London. Hot Chip consign to the past, therefore, the days of Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard as the sole creative force in the group. They also draw on a period of pandemic-induced anxiety and unparalleled social upset that’s left a trail of good people depressed, traumatized, and on edge.
Hot Chip sound fresh on Freak Out/Release, then, but also utterly inspired. They move on from 2019’s acclaimed A Bath Full of Ecstasy with 11 tracks that are once again exquisitely crafted and melodic, yet, impossible as it may seem, tighter, poppier, more immediate, and all worthy as potential singles. Yep, all of them, and they’re eclectic with it, sometimes serving up the kind of energetic funk number Prince would have been proud of and sometimes coming over like an electronic Crowded House: melancholy, wistful, reflective, and masterful of dramatic middle-eights. Hot Chip benefit from the free flow of ideas in the studio, which they work into multi-stylistic songs that are adventurous, audacious, and unpredictable while unified in their preoccupation with troubled, 2020-style states of being. Even if a little nonsensical sometimes or laden with the rhetoric of dodgy self-help books.
The atypical “Down” is your good, sturdy album opener and, rightly, the first single. It builds magnificently on a sample of Universal Togetherness Band’s “More Than Enough”, with its none-more-disco refrain: “You sure know how to break it on down.” It’s funky, soulful, and urgent, with vocalist Taylor ramping up the intensity in the role of the paranoid lover. “You’ve got to need me / ’cause I mean nothing to me.” He’s aided by a filthy bassline and, later, a high-octane drum solo that perfectly announces an all-guns-blazing outro.
It’s a big jump to the distinctly unintense “Eleanor”, an unashamed feelgood summer tune if ever there was one. It may deal in vaguely existential lyrics (“When I walk out in the sea / All the waves crash over me”), but make no doubt that this is the kind of infectious pop-funk number Level 42 mastered in the mid-1980s with “Lessons in Love”, complete with Wally Badarou-style synth touches. It’s insanely catchy and upbeat to boot while staying just the right side of irritating. No mean feat when its message concerns being “part of ecology” and speaking “with economy”, together with stuff about Andre the Giant “on his way to school” and Beckett giving him a ride “before there was carpool”. Who the hell knows?
Less confusing and more leftfield is the Soulwax-assisted title track that comes with the best robotic intro since the Chemical Brothers‘ “Music: Response”, with old band friend the vocoder taking center stage. It also has the best synth-based monster bassline since Adamski’s “Killer”, being an untamed and aggressive rock/dance hybrid of a thing. Furthermore, just as “Killer” vocalist Seal once advocated getting “a little crazy” to survive, so Hot Chip are concerned with whipping up the kind of frenzy on “Freakout/Release” that’ll eliminate feelings that reek of lockdown, claustrophobia, and creative stupor of the musical kind. “I need an escape and some primitive healing,” sings Taylor, and he’s very convincing.
“Broken” and “Not Alone”, on the other hand, demonstrate the Hot Chip way with a heartfelt ballad. The former is possessed of a divine melody, a delicate vocal, and a big chorus of chiming synth chords to mirror a narrator desperately trying to “find language” to salvage a relationship. The latter benefits from Taylor seemingly recalling his childhood (“playing chords instead of holding toys”) as he sings earnestly of the innocence-to-experience journey that has led him to conclude: “Anxiety can only kill a man / if he always turns away the helping hand.” Equally impressive, though, is “Hard to Be Funky”, on which Goddard frets (always the fretting) about aging and grooving and loving over a noirish groove. It’s funk emphasizing self-mocking humor, sharpened by the vocal interplay of Taylor and Goddard, but also Hayter, who delivers the priceless female response: “Just for the record, you sound like a broken record.”
Hot Chip hit further heights on “Time” (a straight-ahead house outing that’s both euphoric and melancholy), “Miss the Bliss” (a vocoder-heavy lament for better days), and “Guilty” (a riff-laden EDM banger that would suit Robyn). Then there’s the sublime “The Evil That Men Do”, which defies categorization in its compelling amalgamation of soul, gospel, and trip-hop. Its brooding, Massive Attack vibe is entirely appropriate, as the song’s message of cultural atonement─”pray for forgiveness, bear witness, be humble”─pertains to the toppling of the statue of slaveowner Edward Colston in that band’s home city of Bristol. It’s a Black Lives Matter message that’s given added potency by Cadence Weapon’s piano-led rap denouement.
Guest stars or not, though, Hot Chip make every track work on Freakout/Release, even the hymnal closer, “Out Of My Depth”, which veers dangerously close to Coldplay’s “Fix You” at one point. They excite, inspire, and energize, but also soothe, amuse, and comfort on this incredibly varied album, leaving practically no time to get bored. So whether Hot Chip continue in this finely-crafted-pop mode or not, it was definitely worth investing in that new recording studio.