Fatboy Slim’s new single “Sunset (Bird of Prey)” isn’t the first time Jim Morrison’s ghost has haunted dancefloors. Back in 1992, Acen’s “Close Your Eyes” plucked some ominous exhortations—”Forget your name. . . . Go insane”—from the Doors’ gloriously portentous and pretentious song cycle “The Celebration of the Lizard” and created a darkside anthem for hardcore ravers. Featuring samples from a bootleg of the Lizard King’s poetry, “Sunset” is altogether less Dionysian—closer to a Gerard Manley Hopkins reverie than Rimbaud’n’roll. Morrison gazes longingly at the soaring raptor, dreamily croons “gently pass on by,” then changes his plea to “take me on your flight.” Riding Norman Cook’s backing track—a trancey grid of fluorescent pulses as ear-dazzling as Vasarely’s Op Art—the looped phrase “flying high” is the hook that will snag the ravers’ brains, lift them right up there with the kites and condors.
Reminding you what amazing presence the now near universally disparaged Morrison exuded, “Sunset” makes you wish Cook would do his own version of An American Prayer, the poetry album released posthumously with tacked-on EZ-listening backing by the surviving Doors. The single’s spiritualized serenity sets the tone for much of Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars: a halfway successful attempt by Cook to stake his claim as Serious Artist. On his brilliant Fatboy Slim debut, Better Living Through Chemistry, and inescapable monstermash “The Rockafeller Skank,” Cook brought fun back to an increasingly somber dance culture, reminding listeners of the potency of cheap thrills. But now, like his professed role models the Chemical Brothers on Surrender, he wants to grow beyond obviousness and instantness—beyond all those tired-and-true builds and breakdowns that trigger a dancefloor’s Pavlovian reflexes. Cook started work on Halfway feeling paralyzed by the problem of how to bypass big beat’s exhausted fastbreaks-acidriffs-oldskoolsamples formula. He found his path by partially abandoning breakbeats in favor of house’s hypnotic four-to-the-floor, and by bringing in what he’s called an “almost gospelly” flavor. You can hear it right off in opener “Talking ‘Bout My Baby,” with its hollers, handclaps, rolling piano chords, wah-wah flickers, and testifying soul singer, whose “big bright yellow sun” is looped into an endless joyburst crescendo.
It’s surprising, though, how much dated, big-beat-style pummel you have to endure before the almost gospel vibe’s glorious return. There’s the manic stupor of “Ya Mamma” and the equally embarrassingly titled “Mad Flava”—one of those midtempo chuggers that Cook uses as album filler, a stale stodge of 303-as-clavinet pseudofunk, human beatbox, and old skool scratching. And “Weapon of Choice” is just ghastly, a Propellerheads-esque, ’60s-into-’90s pastiche of Hammond, horns, and go-go dancer percussion, surely destined for a discotheque scene in Austin Powers 3.
“Drop the Hate,” the first song of the gospel-tinged triptych that redeems the record, is actually more hell-for-leather than holy. The Baptist preacher functions as just another awesome riff alongside the creaky, brain-splitting acid-bassline, its semantic content (“forgive each other”) vaporized to leave an electrifying jolt of ersatz emotion. “Demons,” featuring Macy Gray, is “Praise You, Part 2”: blues licks, deep Stax bass, and a lyric that makes the MDMA/religious rapture equation (“all of your demons will wither away/Ecstasy comes and they cannot stay”). All this Christian imagery and Authentic Black Person huskiness will probably get Halfway tagged as a post-Play move. But you could just as easily see Moby’s last album as a “Praise You” rip-off. Moreover, house music’s always had an almost gospel flavor, from the melisma overload of ex-choirboy Darryl Pandy on 1986’s “Love Can’t Turn Around” and the biblical theme of Joe Smooth’s “Promised Land” to preacher-sampling tracks like DHS’s 1990 “House of God.” Then there’s garage producer and true believer Todd Edwards, whose early releases actually went under the name the Sample Choir. Edwards classics like “Never Far From You” and “Sweet Jesus” are dense tapestries of minuscule samples: vocal splinters of yearning and devotion crosshatched to hyperventilatingly ecstatic effect.
What’s striking about Norman Cook is how little he gets into “vocal science,” the techniques of micro-editing, resequencing, and signal processing at which Edwards is a virtuoso, and which have spread across the dance music spectrum from 2step garage to Madonna’s latest big bag of nuttin’. Even Darren Emerson gets into vocal vivisection on his otherwise lame “Sunset” remix, making an iridescent, foamy lather of Jim Morrison’s voice. Cook, though, tends to just loop his pilfered phrases and let ’em roll, rather than create biomechanical chimeras—perhaps because, like Moby, he wants you to hear the humanity, not the technology.
Which is not to discount the creativity involved in recontextualizing these voices, or Cook’s skill at breaking up the original phrasing to create new cadences. On Halfway, you can see this in the contrast between “Star 69” and the final “Song for Shelter.” The first track is a rampage of heavily filtered house featuring a Biggie soundalike sneering, “They don’t know what is what/They just strut/What the fuck?!” On “Shelter,” another black voice—Roland Clark, the singer on Van Helden’s gorgeous “Flowerz”—extemporizes a beat poet paean to house music, exalting it as a haven of real-deal family values in a hostile world, and word-jazzing about how its rhythm “goes in my blood like alcohol, gets me drunk.” It’s a shock when the “don’t know what is what . . . What the fuck” lick of “Star 69” suddenly rematerializes in “Shelter”: As a component of Clark’s monologue, it signifies not B-boy menace but the house convert’s pity for unbelievers who’ve never experienced the dancefloor’s state of grace. “What the fuck” is revealed as a parody of thug toughness—as the callused character armor that house music melts. Using the same phrase twice to strikingly different effect is Cook’s way of saying, “Don’t underestimate me; there’s more to my art than meets the ear.”
“Song for Shelter” is a gorgeous vision of disco heaven, from Clark’s blissed babble about dancers with “wings for feet” and Jesus being a DJ to the way the track’s spangled billow winds down to a gulf of light that could be drone-rockers Labradford or Stars of the Lid. Briefly catching flashback echoes of the idyllic piano chords from “Talking ‘Bout My Baby,” the track finally vaporizes with a cupola of radiant reverberance. Using another’s voice to spell out his personal creed, “Shelter” is Cook, the king of shallow, making his bid for deepness. It makes you wish he’d had the nerve to shed his party-mad persona altogether and make an entire album in the halcyon space between “Sunset” and “Song for Shelter.” Maybe next time.