In Ghost Colours is a tough act to follow. From the opening guitar strums of “Feel the Love” to the gleaming hit single “Hearts on Fire,” Cut Copy’s 2008 album was a success on all fronts; as catchy as it was invigorating, it was (and remains) fun and thoughtful at the same time.
So it’s not surprising if some fans are disappointed by Zonoscope, the Australian trio’s new album, simply because it’s not In Ghost Colours. Whereas the latter was essentially a series of terrific dance-pop songs strung together by musical interludes, Zonoscope requires more patience; there’s nothing as immediately compelling as “So Haunted,” as jaunty as “Out There On The Ice,” or as hook-laden as “Hearts on Fire” here. But the new Cut Copy record is a more coherent work than its predecessor, one that sounds less like a playlist of excellent singles and more like a good old fashioned album.
For my money, “Need You Now” is as good an album opener as you’re going to find in 2011. At six minutes long, it unfurls slowly but unrelentingly. It’s more of a slow-burner than “Feel the Love,” but when it really hits its stride at the three-minute mark it becomes something majestic. Dan Whitford’s voice almost breaks when he sings, “I know we’re going crazy but I need you now,” and it’s a beautiful moment.
Then he repeats the refrain, backed by some kind of disco chorus. Then the beat, already thrilling, actually picks up more speed and more force. What a terrific introduction to an album that’s more coy with its spectacle than anything the group has released in the past. Like Zonoscope as a whole, “Need You Now” rewards the listener’s rapt attention with the fruits of its momentum.
The next track, “Take Me Over,” is the best song Depeche Mode never wrote. It sounds like a workout song from the future, and if it doesn’t quite grip you on first listen, you’ll be surprised when you find Whitford’s request to “Take me over, take me out/Through the jungle, through the night/To paradise” echoing in your mind long after the song is over. It’s another lengthy track—clocking in at just under six minutes—but with its birdcalls and tropical percussion, there’s not a boring or drawn-out second to be found.
As it ends, “Take Me Over” borrows a trick from In Ghost Colours as it unhurriedly segues into “Where I’m Going,” an ebullient anthem so evocative that it gets by with a wordless chorus—usually, that’s a lazy lyrical decision, but here it feels cathartic, a testament to the music’s ability to enrapture the listener all on its own.
“Pharaohs and Pyramids” is just as dance-friendly as the previous tracks on the album, but it’s led by a piano that gives it an organic charm. Perhaps the song title is dominating my train of thought, but there’s something intangibly Egyptian about the song—it’s a bulked-up version of the music I’d expect to hear while racing through a desert landscape in a Mario Kart game. “Blink and You’ll Miss A Revolution,” meanwhile, contains one of the most gorgeous choruses I’ve heard so far this year, while the following transitory track (“Strange Nostalgia For The Future”) is the aural equivalent of a fireworks show’s afterglow—pianos and synth lines dissolving over the course of two minutes to provide a welcome respite from the nonstop energy of Zonoscope‘s first half.
“This Is All We’ve Got” kicks off the second half of the album, and it underscores how much less glitzy Zonoscope is than In Ghost Colours. Truth be told, it’s more akin to psychedelic rock than synthpop; tracks like this prove that Cut Copy has expanded the scope of its songwriting. It flows right into “Alisa,” which kicks off with a Zombies-like organ intro before morphing into a mod rock track, one eye on the dancefloor and the other minding the swirling electric guitars and backing strings that drape the proceedings in an unabashed 60s vibe.
“Hanging Onto Every Heartbeat” is another rocker, while “Corner of the Sky” is indebted to krautrock, a song that proudly expresses its retro inspiration without resorting to the sounds-like-my-childhood gimmickry that infects so much modern dance music.
As great as they are, however, the four songs following “Strange Nostalgia” all seem to build toward the album’s epic closer, “Sun God.” Five minutes of pop bliss give way to ten minutes of rave culture in a sort of synopsis of Zonoscope‘s sonic aims; catchiness remains a virtue, but Whitford and company have a newfound interest in crafting atmosphere and tension that imbues their music with a gradual excitement that makes the climactic beat drops and choruses all the more rousing.
If In Ghost Colours is an adrenaline rush for dancing feet, then Zonoscope is more like an acid trip, enveloping and beatific and ethereal and wild. Cut Copy explore the limits of dance music and then takes joy in breaking them. Zonoscope isn’t content with being delightful; it has a staying power that matches—and dare I say—exceeds that of its precursor.
Mentioning year-end lists may seem like putting up Christmas decorations in October, but there’s no question that this album will find itself near the top of mine—that is, if anything else this year matches its joyful power.
Your move, 2011.
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