Hot Chip's third album offers moments of sparkling pop-dance perfection -- and some unexpectedly emotional material as well.
For many listeners, the most memorable lyric from Hot Chip's amazing third album may be this: "Made in the Dark by Hot Chip, coming soon". A robotic voice chirps the words over each track of the leaked advance copy, usually at the most inopportune moment -- when the vocals enter for the first time, or when a chorus kicks off. If you've only heard those tracks, if you've lived with these new songs graffitied with corporate paranoia -- not to get all high and mighty -- but this one time you owe it to the music to pay for it, for once.
What makes Made in the Dark great isn't any overarching concept, some grand theme that ties the whole thing together. In fact, the London group's third album is more fragmented than ever -- the songwriting duties, split between singer/producers Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor, reveal a markedly varied set of influences and aesthetics. But the more time you spend with the album, the less that seems to matter. You come to value each song on its own merits. From the club bangers "Shake a Fist" and "Ready for the Floor" to the handful of ballads (there are more than two), each presents an almost perfectly-conceived singular idea, stacked up next to each other like books on a bookshelf.
I want to spend a bit of time discussing one song in particular: "Wrestlers". It's probably my favourite song on the whole album. Here, finally, Hot Chip have penned a worthy successor to "Playboy", the broke-up driving anthem from their debut that worked both as indie-hip and subtly emotional dance pop. Nothing on The Warning had that sparkle, although the melancholia of "And I Was a Boy from School" became (for many) a valued companion for a certain mood. "Wrestlers", though, takes "Playboy"'s casual wit and compartmentalizes it, cycling through styles with the delight of a kid in a toy store. So we get part of a Spoon-esque piano blues-rock song and part of a cartoon video-game fight. The group recycles a melody from The Warning -- the line "I learned all I know from watching the wrestling" is a carbon copy of the "Every time I wake up" line from "Look After Me" -- and it doesn't matter. The soulful pentatonic melody's now a signature, an expected pleasure.
But not to discriminate against the other tracks on Made in the Dark. At each turn the album brings up a new mood, a newly-faceted visage of the band. The now-familiar elements of Hot Chip's sound are everywhere in evidence -- the smooth soul vocals, the unexpected melodies, the pots-n-pans production. It's all re-tooled into new, captivating music. The group re-uses rhythms and melodic fragments in such a way as to create both a strongly individual aesthetic and the thrill of the familiar: the vocal line of "Bendable Poseable", for example, is similar to the chugging background of "Hold On", so that you half expect the vocals from the first song to return.
The balladry on this album may put some listeners off at first. The group's gone waaay balladeer. On "Whistle for Will" there are soft synth pads, little else (hardly any percussion, even), and on "The Privacy of Our Love" it's finger clicks and a somber piano. Hot Chip had some songs that approached ballads on The Warning, but they were cloaked in innovative electronic effects that became those songs' focal point. But the new album finds them in a more confident mood -- they just let the slower songs stand on their own. And the limpid result is "Made in the Dark", a heartbreaking elegy that you have to hear, if you haven't already.
It's too early in the year, everyone's too tired from the glut of year-end lists, to begin throwing out superlatives. But you wonder how high Hot Chip might climb if they released their albums not in February, but in October. Regardless of release date, Made in the Dark is a great album, varied and surprisingly heartfelt. Hiccups surrounding the album leak aside, this one's certainly worth seeking out the old fashioned way, in the aisles of your local record store.