FIRST PUBLISHED AT THE LINE OF BEST FIT
Synth pop is apparently making a big comeback in 2009, I say apparently because I don’t listen to the radio, watch TV or live in an English-speaking country, so it’s easy to shield myself from the probably excessive hype surrounding artists such as, say, Little Boots, Empire Of The Sun and Lady GaGa. It all seems a bit old given that electroclash had its heyday, oh, about five years ago, so things must be desperate if the A&R pendulum has swung back in that direction. However, the year has begun with two intriguing albums with much superficially in common with these artists, the debut album by The Knife’s Fever Ray, and now the return of The Juan MacLean on DFA, both more subversive synth pop variants.
The Juan MacLean’s first album, 2005′s ‘Less Than Human‘, was an interesting take on the DFA dance-punk paradigm: part dystopic disco, part robot pop. Since then of course label boss James Murphy finally delivered on DFA’s early potential with LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Sound of Silver‘, one of the best albums of 2007. Parts of The Juan MacLean’s sophomore album ‘The Future Will Come’ sound a little blatantly influenced by that album, particularly the title track, which echoes some of ‘Sound of Silver”s sentiments: the ageing muso reasserting his relevance. “The Future will come, I’ve had a vision, your popularity is a deep revision,” he warbles in a slightly contrived post-New Romantic vocal style, synth drums pitter pattering and cowbells jangling in rather familiar ways. MacLean’s association with Murphy goes back several decades – they were both members of Sub Pop synth-punk group Six Finger Satellite in the early 90s – and the relationship is more telling on ‘The Future will come’ than on his first album.
However, what separates The Juan Maclean from many of the synth-pop revivalists currently vying for Ipod space is ‘The Future Will Come”s expansiveness, with many tracks unfolding over the unhurried running time of a Trevor Horn 12 inch. Furthermore, despite some of his more ill-advised wanderings into Human League territory (‘One Day’, ‘The Station’) ‘The Juan Maclean’s sound also has its roots in the New York dance scene: there is a hypnotic, cavernous clubland air to the album that revisits ‘Less Than Human”s comedown epic ‘Dance With Me’. The comparable centre-piece here is ‘Tonight’, which evokes the seretonin-depleted, emotionally-drained vestiges of a night of dancefloor, er, ecstasy. It is here that The Juan MacLean really owns the sound, and he’s not shy of a Roland 303 – squiggling acid patterns abound.
LCD Soundsystem besides, Out Hud are the most evident contemporary to The Juan MacLean, who adopts similar ESG-influenced vocals on ‘The Future Will Come’ to those employed on their 2005 album ‘Let Us Never Speak Of It Again‘. The epic opener ‘The Simple Life’ sets the template for the album, with vintage synths, complex polyrhythms and funky basslines, and is about four minutes deep into its kaleidoscopic Knight Rider electro when the vocal hook kicks in. Similarly ‘Happy House’ closes the album with 12 minutes of cosmic disco, the layers of Italian house chords acquiring an almost psychedelic density at its peak. Both singles, ‘The Simple Life’ and ‘Happy House’ form a trio of lengthier pieces (along with ‘Tonight’) at the beginning, middle and end of ‘The Future Will Come’ that really define the album. However, what lies between these points is much more mixed: for instance ‘A New Bot’ imagines Rod, Jane & Freddy doing vocoder disco while ‘No Time’ recalls the robo-sleaze of Black Cherry-era Goldfrapp. Given that the majority of the album is orientated towards the dancefloor, the bleakly melancholic ‘Human Disaster’ – the penultimate track – is somehow out of place. This more nakedly personal interlude stands in striking contrast to some of the posing and pastiche elsewhere on the record – it’s perhaps a shame ‘The Future Will Come’ doesn’t contain a few more moments like this. Will the real Juan MacLean please stand up?