Every once in a while something comes along and surprises me. Considering just how much in modern music is utterly predictable, it's a rare occurrence, and all the more wonderful for its rarity. As both a critic and a music fan, there are few feelings quite as satisfying as being proven totally, unequivocally wrong in regards to an album that you had expected to be totally unexceptional.
Swayzak's previous work just hadn't done much for me. 2002's Dirty Dancing was too clever for its own good, skillfully welding the then-current '80s fascination to a cooler-than-ice tech-house undercarriage. It was essentially a bloodless exercise, however, as tracks like "I Dance Alone" and "In The Car Crash" were just too damn affected to be of any interest to us flesh and blood humans.
From the beginning, Loops from the Bergerie sets itself apart from its predecessors. "Keep It Coming" begins with a hard deep-house beat that immediately sets an anxious, emotionally frigid tone. The bassline that swoops down and forms the song's major hook could have wandered in off New Order's Power, Corruption and Lies, and it instantly proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Swayzak have raised the stakes immeasurably. There's an emotional intensity and honesty that just wasn't here before. The vocal by David Brown (one-third of Swayzak, along with James Taylor and new recruit Kenny Paterson), adds a hint of wistful romance as synth elements build in layers of increasing complexity.
This type of songwriting is hardly new. Underworld has made a lengthy and eventful career out of welding the coolly pulsating beats of old-school techno and deep house to more conventional songwriting forms. The recent explosion of '80s nostalgia has produced many acts with nothing more than a facile understanding of the emotional integrity that made acts such as New Order, Depeche Mode and the Human League so compelling. Loops from the Bergerie is thoroughly modern. It's hardly an '80s throwback, except perhaps in the broad sense that Swayzak are using similar tools as the great '80s synth-pop artists. The cool and detached exterior of overly-synthetic electronic music is rarely a means in and of itself, and great songwriting in this field has traditionally been mined from the juxtaposition between these elements and the heat of human emotion. There's an urgency here that was lacking on Dirty Dancing, and indeed was lacking for most of the recent crop of electroclash fashionistas.
"Another Way", with vocals by Richard Davis, is slightly reminiscent of Royksopp, with deep house elements set against a falteringly fragile male vocal. Davis reminds me of Depeche Mode's Martin Gore, a truly underrated vocalist with a surprising emotional depth. This track continues the anxious, slightly wistful mood that began the album, but adds a hint of unmistakable regret.
"My House" is another track in that vein, albeit slightly more intense. The mournful refrain of "You were once in my house / You were once in my head / You were once in my heart / You were once in my bed", digs its claws deep. The rolling bassline provides a sinister undercurrent.
"Snowblind" features another excellent vocal performance by Dave Brown. This track is slightly more optimistic than the rest of the album, somewhat reminiscent, in an odd way, of Simply Red or even Chris Isaak. The longing that was allowed to curdle into unmistakable regret on tracks like "Keep It Coming" is still a vibrant force on this track, even if the proceedings are still wrapped in sorrow. The listener knows this can't end well, even if the singer still entertains a weak hope. Sometimes a weak hope is enough.
Clair Dietrich's low-key spoken word adds a touch of sharp poignancy to the otherwise frigid "Then There's Her", perhaps the album's most direct evocation of the laptap style that defined Swayzak's previous incarnation. "8080" is the album's centerpiece, a slow-building instrumental built atop a frenetic drum loop. They keep adding elements, including synth swirls, stomping beats and muted vocals by Mathilde Mallen until the track is simply overwhelming.
"Speakeasy" is an uncharacteristically uptempo rock number, with walls of fuzzy guitars, crushing beats and feverish keyboard riffs. This serves as one last laugh before the end of the album, "The Long Night", an ominously brokenhearted number featuring loping, staggered drumbeats and, again, the vocals of Ms. Mallen. Although the album contains a verisimilitude of emotional shades, the overwhelming tone is one of regret, and "The Long Night" is a superbly evocative exploration of what St. John of the Cross called the "dark night of the soul", a satisfying capstone to a refreshingly mordant and starkly adult electronic pop album.
When David Brown, James Taylor and Kenny Paterson, decamped to a rural country house near Montpellier, France called the Bergerie last year, they had the simple goals of stepping away from the conventions of laptop pop and experimenting with a more organic way of making music. Certainly, their efforts have born unexpected and delightful fruit. Loops from the Bergerie is a startlingly fresh and mature rebirth for Swayzak, reflecting a deliciously composed and delicately balanced emotional honesty. I had low hopes for this album, and I am happy to report that Swayzak have not only exceeded my expectations but succeeded in producing one of the best albums of the year so far.