Five years ago, electronic duo the Juan MacLean released In a Dream, a richly complex gem of an album that took their music out of essentializing categories like house or nu-disco and saw the two – DFA CEO John MacLean and LCD Soundsystem’s Nancy Whang – exploring every style under the larger synthpop umbrella they could. At a time when every mainstream pop artist was bolstering their sound by packing on the electronics, for better or for worse, the Juan MacLean reminded that they were already doing it better. And on In a Dream, they perhaps did it best.
It’s easy to miss that virtuosity on new album The Brighter the Light, a flattened collection of four-on-the-floor beats that, catchy as they are, have a tendency toward sameness. Let’s be clear: this is as sharp and bright a collection of house music as can be found, each track simultaneously nostalgic for the 1990s and freshly unpackaged. The grounded energy of Whang’s voice, straddling the line between coolly disaffected and sensual dance muse, remains an excellent, instantly recognizable centerpiece for the Juan MacLean’s music. On The Brighter the Light, that becomes more crucial than ever, anchoring and adding dimension to an album of mainly previously released singles.
Getting down on the dancefloor to most of the singles is easy enough. Trap fills and trippy keys, often at high speed, make for an appealing foundation. Highlight “Get Down (With My Love)” starts with retro vocal samples that echo over thin layers of percussion and synths, eventually giving way to Whang’s refreshingly straightforward lyrical delivery. Also drawing heavily on peak house sounds is “Can You Ever Really Know Somebody”, where Whang takes a slightly sweeter tone and MacLean’s synths sparkle, reminiscent of the more galactic sounds on In a Dream. The dramatic “Zone Non Linear” begins with a blast of sound and has, perhaps, the most dynamism of any track on the album as melodic and rhythmic elements expand and contract.
On some tracks, though, there’s a failure for good elements to gel. “Feel Like Movin'” takes a brilliant instrumental track and covers it with frankly inane Eurodance-ready lyrics. “It’s the perfect night to get away / Our love will last forever and a day.” “So let your heart get crazy / And let your head get dizzy / Let yourself get busy, it’s easy.” Whang can’t convincingly sell these lines, perhaps to her credit. “Quiet Musician” is a slow-moving instrumental track that builds well, but to absolutely nothing. Final track “The Brighter the Light” is another instrumental, and though it has brilliant moments – the keys are particularly on point – it also feels a little aimless.
The other cuts here are fairly solid. Opener “What Do You Feel Free About” has an infectious choral line and a wisely simple synth motif throughout. “You Are My Destiny” and “Pressure Danger” build up their respective lower ends to evoke packed clubs and flashes of disco light. Together, they round out an album that, even at its least remarkable, ably demonstrates the Juan MacLean’s skill with dance beats. It’s hard not to feel a little disappointed after the unmitigated triumph of In a Dream. But The Brighter the Light makes for an easy enough sampler of the duo’s work outside the aforementioned opus.