Hard To Be Human Again

Two halfway-through-the-decade disco contenders come out of their corners a bit guarded

It's probably wrong to call Luomo's Vocalcity (2000) and Kylie Minogue's Fever (2001) the two best disco albums of the Aughts thus far. That's a fool's game, not least because of Daft Punk's Discovery and the Avalanches' Since I Left You and Triple R's Friends and Basement Jaxx and Perlon Records, etc. But the pair do map the terrain out something

nice. In this corner, the jiffy-poppiest record of the current epoch, Daft Punk with star appeal, every bit as dazzled by its own machinery and dizzy with its own grace, and— in case you missed its world-beating singles and videos—Feveris really, really, really catchy. In that corner, the debut of Finnish dub-techno artiste Vladislav Delay's deep-house guise, which isn't catchy at all, at least not in the snappy, immediate sense. Its surface is cool, but the jitteriness just under the surface, and the sense of dread beneath that, call the album's pleasures (and house music's generally) into question.

There are stretches (not a word I'm using lightly) when Vocalcity seems like the great yawning chasm of house music, pleasure as bottomless pit, the dream and lie of clubland staring back at you. Kylie's emotions are big and clear: She's exuberant, she's coy, she's electrically charged, she's really horny. Luomo's are confused, buried beneath layers of murk, surfacing willfully, almost mournfully. "Because you move/The way you move/I've got to keep on moving with you," goes "Synkro," transforming from mantra to plea and back with every iteration, as dub-house bass and slow-mo synth shudders rise and decay in and out of the blipstream.

Vladislav Delay, a/k/a Luomo
Photograph by Marc Hohmann
Vladislav Delay, a/k/a Luomo

It's probably wrong to say Kylie's and Luomo's new albums switch places: Body Language is only as "arty" as the electroclash it borrows liberally from, and old-fashioned pop fans will still find The Present Lover unmoored. But both do move tentatively toward the middle. Body Language is an album only partly suited to a goddess—Madonna inhabited similar beats far more securely on Music, and unlike her American semi-counterpart, Kylie doesn't appear to have any vocal training to show off. That's great when she's being an icon, which is what she spent all of Fever doing. Language tackles the more problematic issue of figuring out what to do when iconhood is not enough. There's something rote and antiseptic about the album's party mood—the electro-beats' clean squelch, the undercooked hooks, the odd primness of Kylie's singing. She sounds hemmed in by bleh material; when she dispatches a fine young thing because she's feeling like a "Red Blooded Woman" (as opposed to what, blue?), both the song and the blood seem a little thin.

The part of the review where I suggest that Kylie should hook up with Luomo will have to remain on the cutting-room floor. Vladislav Delay is nobody's idea of a songwriter; vocalists are grist for his sampler, and so are words. But what he makes of them can be startling. The Present Lover is a more finely shaped album than Vocalcity—10 discrete tracks that run overture-crest-comedown, between four and 10 minutes each, as opposed to a half-dozen that ooze amorphously for 79 total. But where Vocalcity turns its emotional confusion into a coat of arms (cf. There's a Riot Goin' On, Metal Box, Maxinquaye), The Present Lover sometimes just feels confused: The opening diptych tries too hard to swoon ("Visitor" with its stupid lines about "boiling in your cold," "Talk in a Danger" with its simpering chorus), "Cold Lately" meanders more than any random 4:44 of Vocalcity, and the remake of that album's great "Tessio" introduces an acoustic guitar and not much else.

This matters less than it should; the slow-burn stuff helps the pace along, setting the tone for the disc's real reason for being: It's the site of the most voracious desire-matrices Luomo has concocted. The plodding foursquare keyboard hook of "So You" rubs against a simple plea ("Do I want too much?") until Delay ruptures the lines into even more desireful babble ("Do I—do too much?"), cracking the song wide open. The title cut is breathless like early New Order crossed with early doo-wop, topped by a Robert Fripp solo played on underwater snake keytar. "What Good" features a charmingly nattering Prince soundalike, but lifts off the planet at minute three, with the greatest and probably only key change in post-rave history. And "Shelter" sounds like a State of the House Nation address, even if that nation isn't paying attention. The female singer falters, stammers, rights herself, squares her shoulders, and looks you in the eye: "I'm trying/To stand/With you/Together." Its measured internal steeliness is more pragmatic than iconic, but there's nothing confused about it.

 
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