Constant fluxes define pop art. It cannot stay still and must continually move to remain exciting and compelling. Artists must follow their muse, allowing life changes, world events, and personal issues to influence the direction that work takes. Pop art doesn’t exist in a vacuum and is a cumulative result of many different, disparate inspirations. The why is always interesting, though. Why does an artist choose to change her style? Is it to stay current? Is it to remain competitive and exciting, to keep up with ongoing shifts in pop music? Or is it something far more profound? Is it because the artist is following that aforementioned muse?
When listening to Junior Boys‘ new album, Waiting Game, the duo’s sixth studio release, these questions of change and growth come up. The record comes after a series of records that embraced 1980s-influenced synthpop, dance music, and even 1980s soul. So much of contemporary dance music looks to the 1980s as a hallmark decade for inspiration, and Waiting Game brings in some of those sounds into the ethereal tones and themes of the work. The music is a departure, the album sounding far more sedate, intimate, and smaller even. There aren’t any funky to-the-floor anthems this time; instead, the Junior Boys create luxurious, textured mini-symphonies that use technology to make mesmerizingly soothing sounds.
Waiting Game is ambient music, but luckily, Junior Boys avoid the soporific effect that much of ambient music possesses; instead, we’re gifted with cool, thoughtful songs that sound pensive and sometimes wistful. Feathery, ghostly vocals shimmer through meditative synths and chime with leisurely and deliberately unhurried paces. Though Waiting Game is a mainstream pop record, it doesn’t sound much like other synthpop work we’re hearing. Instead of slavishly paying homage to Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, or Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Junior Boys stand out by indulging in their creative impulses.
When opening Waiting Game, Junior Boys could’ve done the expected and understandable by giving listeners a taste of something familiar. The album comes six years after their previous LP, 2016’s brilliant dance-pop epic, Big Black Coat (a 2016 EP – Kiss Me All Night – was a brief slab of angular dance-funk). Instead of easing us into the new sound, the album opens with the still and quiet “Must Be All the Wrong Things”. Arty and droning, it sounds like a contemporary art sound installation. Jeremy Greenspan’s vocals are barely audible; they’re so smeared and watered down, the synthetic manipulation rendering them part of the atmospheric soundscape.
The sound fairly sidles into the second track, “Night Walk”, which glimpses at some of what the duo had done in the past. The track is a percolating, pulsing ballad that places Greenspan’s beautiful voice in a thick, echoey chamber of gently throbbing synths. “Fidget” works a similarly gorgeous melancholy sound, with its loop of pealing chimes and humming synths that will recall Stranger Things at its most nostalgic.
Overall, Waiting Game is a sedate affair, but there are solitary moments of jolts. Vocals sluiced up with studio effects slice through sharply in “It Never Occurred to Me”. A sneaky groove slithers in between the glowing synthesizer. We can also hear the suggestion of a dance tune in “Thinking About You Calms Me Down”, a skeletal pop tune that sports more of Greenspan’s fantastic singing (seriously, the guy’s voice is gorgeous). If “It Never Occurred to Me” fairly indicates 1980s soul-pop, “Yes II” screams it. It’s a funky, slow jam that sounds like something that would appear in one of Junior Boys’ previous works. “Yes II” finds a strange and unexpected sweet spot, intersecting 1980s urban pop with slinky early 1990s soul balladry.
Despite the familiarity of the graceful “Yes II”, Waiting Game is a record of altering expectations. We’re hearing Junior Boys’ elegant growth and evolution with their sound. We’re constantly impressed with how Greenspan and his partner Matt Didemus create some moving sounds, pivoting away from their synth-funk past. The sounds are slowed down significantly, and we’re pulled into a far tighter space than in the past. It’s a fitting reflection of the general melancholy we all seem to be feeling at the moment, given how difficult these past few years have been. Though Waiting Game doesn’t reference the turmoil of the last six years, it feels wholly appropriate that in the six years since the funktastic dance of Big Black Coat, we settle into the far more pensive, meditative sound of Waiting Game.