This piece was originally published on the 8th of June 2015 by The 405.
This is not dance music. This is not for jumping up and down on. This is not the future soundtrack for the best nights of your life, nor an invitation to lose yourself within undulating basslines and a throng of euphoric lost souls. You need to cast such assumptions aside before delving into In Colour, the long-awaited début solo album from twenty-six year old producer Jamie Smith – better known as Jamie xx. While the album’s title and cover – not to mention the PR casting him as “one of the major DJ draws at the sophisticated end of the global nightlife spectrum,” whatever that means – would seem to suggest something vivacious, outgoing and, you know, colourful, those expecting anything approaching ‘the sound of the summer’ will be left underwhelmed (you could say they’d be greeted by the sound of a bummer). With the exception of the Young Thug and Popcaan featuring single ‘I Know There’s Gonna be Good Times’, there is nary a banger to be found amid measured and contemplative tracks that are more preoccupied with a nostalgia for good times past than the ecstasy of those present and future. And while you can certainly bop your head to most of it, even sway vigorously if you’re so inclined, in the context of a club I imagine that the only people going off will be those leaving to get a drink before something more immediately exciting comes on.
Sceptics will argue that this is a failing on Smiths’ part; that, given his oeuvre of sanitised dance music for indie poseurs who like the idea of dance music but can’t be bothered to invest anything in it, this outcome was inevitable. And I can certainly see where they’re coming from. Throughout In Colour, Smith liberally cribs aspects from the myriad weird and obscure facets of nineties UK dance music with which he’s obsessed – hardcore, house, garage, jungle, rare groove, and so on ad infinitum – but he typically reduces them to their cleanest and most inoffensive forms. Opener ‘Gosh’, for example, skips and breaks like any hardcore or jungle track, but taken as either it’s fatally bereft of any grit or intensity (although the homage to Orbital’s ‘Belfast’ in the latter half is admittedly lovely); ‘Sleep Sound’ brings to mind a fucking great set of house music, only you can barely hear it because it’s happening at a party down the road and you’re not invited; and ‘The Rest is Noise’ is a montage of nineties dance signifiers that, with its hushed vocal samples and touches of saccharine piano chords, feels more appropriate for faux-profound mobile phone adverts than dance floors. Don’t get me wrong, these songs are lush and obviously meticulously constructed – really, the whole album is – but that sometimes comes at the expense of raw, visceral impact. On tracks such as ‘The Rest is Noise’ and ‘Obvs’ especially, it just feels a bit too airy and devoid of tension to really get you moving – it can be as tepid as you’d imagine ‘sophisticated’ nightlife to be (I mean, fucking hell).
Even so, despite these reservations, I would be more inclined to fully agree with a sceptical line of argument if I believed that Smith sought to either: 1) satisfy purists with something challenging; or 2) achieve ubiquity within clubs, warehouses and house parties alike this summer. He’s already demonstrated that he’s capable of doing both with the excellent We’re New Here, the 2011 album made in collaboration with Gil Scott-Heron, so, when confronted by In Colour’s diluted reconfiguration of dance music’s past, I cannot help but think that he’s aiming for something completely different here. It seems that, rather than setting out to create a straight-up dance record, he’s used the manifold stylistic languages of dance to make an easily-digestible electronic-pop record that’s about dance music and Why We Dance. I mean, it cannot be a coincidence that ‘Stranger in a Room’, the album’s most passionate paean to dance culture and the exhilaration of escaping the self and belonging to The Crowd, doesn’t even register a drum beat behind its skeletal synth melody and a typically unassuming vocal from Smith’s xx bandmate Oliver Sim. This clearly isn’t dance music, this is nostalgia for the lights rendered as a minimalist, fairly poignant electronic pop song that wouldn’t feel out of place on the next xx album. It’s at a remove – quietly pining for a glorious past transformation that offered an escape from the mundanity of real life, but one that was also fleeting and acknowledged as such – and all the more successful for it.
While ‘Stranger in a Room’ is definitely the most extreme example of In Colour’s distance and simplicity, Smith leaves plenty space for quiet moments and wistfulness throughout the record, albeit with mixed results. Sometimes it’s detrimental; ‘SeeSaw’, for example, drifts in one ear and out the other without putting up much of a fight. But at other times, such as the interlude ‘Just Saying’, it can be gorgeous; over eighty-five seconds, Smith captures a transient moment of bliss in slow motion, from jubilant realisation to the inevitable, devastating comedown. However, in the context of all this minimalism, the album’s only big, feisty, club-ready number, ‘I Know There’s Gonna be Good Times’, feels desperately out of place. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine single that’ll bang all summer long, but it only shows up how (intentionally) restrained and (unintentionally) nice the rest of the album can be (the would-be anthem ‘Hold Tight’, for instance, is the Disney equivalent of Burial’s ‘Loner’). It’s a cruel irony that the one actual dance track exposes this, though it certainly makes more sense when we consider In Colour’s genesis. Smith has cited the bouts of homesickness he experienced during a 2012 tour of America with The xx as the key motivation behind this album; while abroad, he was able to reconnect with his hometown of London and its history of dance through the Channel 4 series Top Boy (which is sampled on the half-lovely-half-tedious final track ‘Girl’) and Mark Leckey’s short film celebrating British dance culture, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999). They presented a London that he feared was disappearing, a London he tried to reclaim with In Colour.
So it’s no wonder the whole thing feels so clean, so ripe with a melancholy and nostalgia. Using the musical language of a London that, following the closure of Plastic People and countless other clubs, has arguably disappeared, Smith is essentially trying to recover something from an idealised (and therefore cleaner) past that he feels has been lost. Maybe it’s a sense of community, or hope that was lost during a revolution that never happened – it’s not so clear. Or perhaps it’s that utopian promise of everybody under one roof raving, that dance music is, and always should be, for everybody. Now, there are people who simply won’t buy this coming from Smith – probably those who were actually there in the nineties, unlike Smith, who would have been eleven years-old when Fiorucci was released – and will see this album as an innocuous exercise in misplaced sentimentality when compared to the ‘real’ thing. But there are plenty more people who will wholeheartedly buy into it – who will fall for Smith’s pretty, intricate designs and reconfiguration of idiosyncratic dance music into something more readily consumable – and that’s great. I’m more on the fence, leaning towards the latter side. In Colour breaks no new ground to be sure, but as an accessible crossover record it does a perfectly serviceable job. It’s light, breezy and pretty, as ephemeral as the exhilaration of clubbing without really evoking the thrill of it all. Not exactly dance music, but a nice reminder that there’s always a fucking great party going on somewhere, even if it isn’t here.