For anyone that’s ever seen me at a Hot Chip gig (yes, even that one) and just how excited I get by that band, it’s probably about as much of a surprise as hearing I picked Metronomy’s Small World for Episode 21. But however much Hot Chip’s 8th studio album, Freakout/Release, felt like an obvious pick for me, it’s not the slamdunk that it might seem. For starters, it presented me with a quandry for the podcast: I’m an unashamed Hot Chip nerd, a lover of the band since their first album in 2004, so how objective could I be and frame this as a discussion that gave the subject its due without letting personal feelings overbear it? Also, there were other choices in play, not least the amazing Cheat Codes from pod favourites Dangermouse and Black Thought. It’s such a dazzling album with all the vintage feels, oddball samples galore, and conscious, layered flow (not to mention some amazing guests) that it’s a 2022 Top 10 shoe-in. But does anyone want to listen to 4 guys agreeing how good something is for an hour? I wasn’t so sure.
So Hot Chip wasn’t just a lazy pick, and the more I listened, the more it raised a lot of questions that are relevant to my music DNA, and why we do the podcast: how we grow up with bands (and them with us), how artists develop over the years, how and why we connect with them and the effects on music of the inevitable march of time. After all, when I’ve listened to every one of the band’s albums dozens and dozens of times (and for this album, all 8 in one day, just for research purposes!) and seen them tour every one of them since The Warning, I am probably reasonably qualified to consider those questions. To me there’s been subtle but noticeable changes in tone and lyrics that bring me back to those queries each time. For me – if we’re putting it out there – there’s 3 ‘acts’ of Hot Chip: the spiky, jolting first two albums, then an almost impeccable run from Made In The Dark, via One Life Stand, to In Our Heads, and then further shift from Why Make Sense? to the current day. From oddball nerds (a press label as much as anything, and one they probably hate) to underground darlings to a British institution with a dedicated global following. All of this despite only one UK top 10 single (Ready For The Floor) and album (Made In the Dark). Enter their first new album in 3 years, do things feel different? It’s a cliché to say lots has changed since their previous album, A Bath Full Of Ecstacy, arrived, but lockdown and the pandemic has put an indelible mark on society, so it’s not a surprise to hear the band talk about its influence on Freakout/Release and how that made them strive to search for a sound that they wanted to play live.
I probably should admit there’s part of me that connected with the band back in the mid-00s as I saw them as not trying to be cool, just doing their thing, looking like a strange collection of ‘guys with synths’ and making some amazing music, but without any real ego. I was never (am never, will never be) one of the cool kids, a perennial fan of music, DJs, art, clubs, gigs, festivals that wanted to get on the inside but was always peering (metaphorically and literally, sometimes) over the fence at the action, trying to get behind the rope. Hot Chip were one of the first bands I’d seen that looked both totally normal but also really cool, but much more like me and people we knew. I doubt they liked the ‘nerd’ tag (who would?) but against all of that, managed to cultivate a furrow that was very much their own, musically and beyond. Yes, they’ve done themes and colourschemes for some tours and albums, but a lot they’ve done just by being themselves. And how can you not be cool by playing every festival out there, DJing in all the good clubs, and seemingly getting to do it your way throughout? It’s the dream, right? (and disclosure, I’ve meet a few of them in a musical and fan capacity, and guess what? They’re lovely, sound people, so do meet your heroes, at least sometimes).
So what do we know about the album? Like its predecessor, it’s an album where the Alexis Taylor, Joe Goddard, Al Doyle, Felix Martin and Owen Clarke have allowed external producers into the inner sanctum, and like A Bath Full, it’s yielded interesting results that aren’t always visible at first glance. While Bath Full was lauded as positive statement on connection, joy and music’s ability to foster both of these things, (with the late Cassius and production wizard Phillipe Zdar‘s influence writ large and hailed by the band, alongside xx producer Rodiadh MacDonald) the new album feels, at first listens, as a bleaker affair. Where Bath Full wrapped up the listener in a cloud of positive warmth and gentle, existential questions, the backdrop to Freakout/Release’s creation seems to have tipped the band over into far a more introspective, fraught and anxious headspace (if the track titles were your first entry point, then you may baulk at ‘Down‘, ‘Broken‘, ‘Not Alone‘, ‘Guilty‘ and ‘The Evil That Men Do‘). But as with most of Hot Chip’s work, it’s never as binary as this, and while heartbreak preceded its recording – with long-time live addition Rob Smoughton’s near-death illness and Zdar’s passing – and global turmoil surrounded it, hearing the band talk about its making would bely the obvious assumptions that this is a bleak, lockdown album. It’s also interesting hearing Goddard and Taylor talk about the influence of live cover Sabotage over its making, something played out in both the rawer feel of some tracks and also the distorted, dry vocals used, which feels far out of the Hot Chip comfort zone.
Because while Goddard and Taylor have been open about how much the shadow of lockdown loomed over it, a two-pronged narrative emerged: the desire to make songs that they wanted to play in front of festival crowds, even if they didn’t know when that would happen, and a search for connection in music when isolation ruled our lives. Elemental stuff, and very much in tune with how I want to experience music (perhaps a big reason I have always chimed with their work). And on wading in, there are a few things that don’t feel like classic Hot Chip to me immediately: Down’s leaning closely on a sample – 1:42 into the Universal Togetherness Band’s More Than Enough – the isn’t unique (Why Make Sense’s Flutes is the obvious previous nod) to the band but having it on a lead single seems a departure when it’s so core to the song’s feel, which is as disco as they’ve ever got, and as full of Doyle’s guitar licks that it could be a different band to the likes of Shake A Fist’s jagged electronics (even though when you relisten, guitars come up a lot more than I remember across their catalogue). The title track also feels much more raw and messy than their polished, electronic pop sound, with the band passing the unfinished track through the brains of legendary duo Soulwax to get the right vibe. It’s a raucous, scuzzy, almost punky track, that seems very much at odds with the band’s sound, and, as it turns out, a real outlier. You’re left feeling it could’ve been so much more interesting to hear more of this, but would it dilute Hot Chip’s ethos so much they risk alienating the core of devoted fans that have been with them for so much of the journey? We’ll never know. But it’s a step into the unknown somewhat. And I like it.
There’s also a question about how much Goddard and Taylor’s hegemony has been loosened and how much solo and other band projects can and have influenced the band’s own output? Al Doyle’s ‘other band’ being LCD Soundsystem and the influence he’s now had on James Murphy’s outfit (writing a clutch of songs for their last album) has – to me – markedly led to his guitars and a ‘rockier’ sound come more into Hot Chip’s world in recent albums. When LCD split, Doyle and university friend Felix Martin formed New Build and scratched another musical itch. Taylor has released many keyboard and piano-based solo work and Goddard’s work as 2 Bears, and a solo album has solidified his own musical identity away from this outfit. Has a more egalitarian approach meant a richer tapestry for Hot Chip’s work, or diluted some of the magic that earlier albums found? Does the recording of Freakout/Release in Doyle’s new studio (‘Relax and Enjoy’) mean the band is more content to experiment or is that just a factor of being together for so long? This ‘third act’, from Why Make Sense certainly feels like something has changed. The question is where this leaves the band itself, and how those that buy the music feel about it.
So for this album, all isn’t quite fallen into place, for me. The problem perhaps with the programming of the album from here is that with second single Eleanor – a straight up PSB-style shimmering pop banger and earworm about love and loss – sandwiched between the two other ‘radio tracks’, it leaves the album with a challenge to maintain the momentum after 3 singles grab all the attention at the start. And perhaps this is where others have struggled with it, too. When I’ve dived in, I already know the 3 tracks off by heart so I either want to get past them to connect with the rest of the album, or when I have gone from track 1, it’s like a ‘before’ and ‘after’ between the opening stanza and the rest. It feels a particularly odd thing to do, and while it’d be reductive to wonder if there was a worry about the album’s staying power had led to this track order, I find it hard to entirely shake. And that’s a real shame, as there truly is a lot to like from Freakout/Release, but it’s hard to manoeuvre around this music ‘speed bump’ for a long while.
‘Broken’ is a beautiful song that talks about how to reach out and help someone, Taylor’s wistful vocals intertwining with the leads, and mined from real-life experience of feeling helpless at others’ suffering. It’s definitely a good example of where the band is: talking about emotion, heartache, wrapped up in lush, layered instrumentation. They’ve always done this heart-on-sleeve well, and it’s particularly well-twinned with Taylor’s vocals, but in recent albums, it’s more overt and none more so than this one. They seem ever more confident perhaps after years of doing this, to be upfront with such subject matter, even if it’s at odds with the tracks’ musical feel. This dissonance – to me – is brave, but often effective for the band (think ‘No God‘ on the previous album or ‘One Life Stand’). As a result, ‘Broken‘ isn’t a song that you’d feel would be in their early work, but there’s still a lineage back to the 80s synths that inspire them. With every album, there’s still nods to their touchstones: Prince, Kraftwerk, Robert Wyatt, Prefab Sprout or hip-hop and r’n’b from the 90s. It’s just that with maturity and age their sound is much more layered and complex than the austere, almost angular feel of Coming On Strong or The Warning. I have hugely enjoyed this progression (however subtle) but I also feel that some of that pure dancefloor energy has ebbed away as a result. But at 47, it’s not as big an issue as it may be for trying to hold the attention of the kids, coming up from behind.
‘Not Alone’ is a great example of Goddard and Taylor’s lyrics and vocals in motion together. Ever since they started making music together at school, there’s a certain alchemy that feels very much theirs. I can’t think of another band in the UK that employs two male vocals that operate mainly in falsetto or high ranges they way they do, and it’s one reason that – despite so many claiming others sound like them – they still sound so unique to me, inhabiting their own musical space so effectively over 20 years as others come and go around them. I get that it’s also a reason that some find them grating; if it’s not a style you can get on with, it’s going to be hard to love them (like I do, at least). It’s also another track that feels quite introspective and, well, sad. And perhaps this strain through much of the record is why it may be beautiful, and may envelop in the headphones as fantastically-constructed electronic pop music, but may ultimately not quite have the propulsive zip of previous albums.
‘Hard To Be Funky’ is a track definitely I wasn’t sure of at the outset: the lyrics jarred a bit and it’s ‘Alexis’ slow one’ (think White Wine and Fried Chicken, Slush, Look After Me, In The Privacy Of Our Love) but as you get past the pace, it’s an interesting question about the meaning of ‘funk’ – music that’s so core to what Hot Chip do, and that is so associated with sex and sleaze, and how this means so many different things to so many people. I also really like how Lou Hayter comes in as a point of difference, and it’s a collaboration that just works and brings something different. I always enjoy how any band opens up to this (look at how effective Porridge Radio’s appearance on Small World worked for Metronomy). ‘Time’ is about as ‘dancefloor’ as the album gets, which is – at least partly – a shame, but I’m glad it’s on the album. It does pick up the pace where the album starts to feel a bit out of gas. Similarly, its segue with ‘Miss The Bliss‘ is needed to keep this up. It’s actually a really lyrically simple track that speaks to supporting others – again borne out of the solitude of lockdown – and feels much closer to Goddard’s own solo work than anything else on the album, even featuring Goddard’s brother and various family members in the group for the choral vocal. It’s an uplifting and sweetly personal moment.
Perhaps I can’t entirely get on board with the programming – and am unable to think exactly how I’d change it – but I do salute individual tracks. ‘The Evil That Men Do‘ is another outlier for Hot Chip: an overtly ‘political’ song about toxic masculinity and male privilege that starts as a light call-response between Alexis and Joe ‘beg for forgiveness / bear witness / be humble‘, before opening up with piano and a lovely bridge that drops into Cadence Weapon’s flow, which is another welcome collaboration. A nod back to Posdnous’ much loved verse (by me, at least) on ‘Love Is The Future‘, from Why Make Sense? With a band that’s so steeped in hip-hop as influences it’s great to see it literally land on an album, and makes me wish there was more of it in their catalogue. It’s also another example of really dry, effected vocals (with the title track) where it’s an attempt to strip back the angelic tones of Taylor past the halfway mark as the track almost splits in two as Cadence’s flow leaps in. The contrast is so strong it’s almost jolting, but it really works for me.
The album closes with two of the stronger tracks: ‘Guilty‘, which feels like a live classic already. It leapt out on first listen and still sticks out. Musing on the difference between dream and waking consciousness, it’s playful and fun lyrically ‘when you see a finish line / does it end up your nose‘? There’s a real 80s funk feel to this, and it carries into the uplifting closer, ‘Out Of My Depth‘. Hot Chip do have a thing for statement closing tracks (Why Make Sense, or Bath Full’s No God, not to mention One Life Stand’s Take It In) and it’s an attempt to perhaps take the darker subject matter of Freakout and land on a more hopeful note, that sadness and emotion is not to be avoided but you can come out the other side intact: “Then I’m in my darkest room / But I’m careful not to enjoy it / All too much, but as I leave / It will be helpful to have endured it.” In many ways it’s one of the biggest nods to this being a far more ‘grown up’ album than their early work, and god knows we love ‘grown up pop’ ™.
So what to make of it this against their canon and – more importantly – the rest of music in 2022? It’s left me feeling slightly adrift of where I’d expect to be. Is this the first album I haven’t fallen for yet from the band? Will I eventually do that? Does every band have a finite shelf life and is this where we are finally heading here? Locking into the themes of how the band themselves can keep making music that has meaning to them – and to us – it genuinely feels strange not to have fallen for a Hot Chip album after a few listens for the first time. Even uncomfortable. I question myself, as much as I do the music. Does it say more about me or the band? Is this just a really good album but sits in comparison to other fresher, more inventive albums this year? It can’t hold a candle to Steve Lacey or Joy Crookes, or the power of Kendrick? But does that matter? Doesn’t it just really matter if it connects and I like it? And life life in general, am I just overthinking it?
For me, music has always been about feelings and connection. Every album before this from the band has had tracks that I feel deeply about. Some of them for reasons I can’t even put my finger on. Brothers is a track I can’t help but well up when I listen to. Written by Joe about this brother, I can’t obviously help but reference my own twin and how much he means to me. Or Night And Day’s little ‘Iknowyou’rethinkingaboutme’ line makes me want to jump out of my chair (and their videos? I could write a whole other blog about their genius). Or Let Me Be Him (from In Our Heads) chokes me up. And Melody Of Love cannot fail to moisten my eyes. Forget logic, it just subconsciously works. I cannot tell you how and it does not matter. Music is about connection for me, so to listen to Freakout/Release and think ‘this is lovely’ for a good chunk of it, doesn’t quite feel enough.
And there’s another, bigger, more important factor at play here: the band is older, lives have changed, families and other responsibilities, as for all of us, emerge. How much of that feeds into the music directly and how much of it is osmosis? It must surely permeate. None of us are in clubs like we used to be, and yet I miss their really big dancefloor bangers (as I also understand that it’d be odd for nothing to change). Think One Life Stand, or Hold On, or perhaps Shake A Fist, No Fit State or Huarache Lights. And I don’t really see that vibe here, for all the musical lushness and inventiveness. Again, does that matter? I still love dance music, and clubs – even if I’m rarely in them – and so having a Hot Chip album that doesn’t quite bang as much as others feels, well, sad. But perhaps it’s another facet of developing as a band, getting older, shifting subtly into areas that feel more removed from where you were ten years ago. Who am I to tell the band it’s not their right to do that, but is there a point where it starts to depart from me, personally? Because I know that even if this album never quite gives me the feels I’ve had before, I know when I see them live, it’ll be as good as it’s ever been with all their catalogue behind them. Because, they are a fantastic live band. It’s often overlooked but to me they are one of the best live bands around, an expanded 7 piece (with Smoughton and drummer Leo Taylor) that can recreate anything from the studio with added vigour and snap on tour. Where will I be? Down the front, singing, shouting, and crying, and I’d never have it any other way.
I worried when I first heard this album and read the press it hit me that perhaps this could be their last album? Maybe it was a reaction to some of the lyrics “Music used to be escape / Now I can’t escape it” (on the title track) and talk of the difficulty that surrounded making it, and perhaps leapt unguardedly to the wrong conclusion, because these things are never to be taken as read, as Taylor has talked about this time around. I don’t think that’s the case any more (especially given their packed touring schedule) and I sincerely hope they are around for a long time yet, but it’s hard not to worry about myself and my taste here as much as the band’s output and wonder where this will all end up. Because I’ve fallen in and out of love with bands before, but this is the first time my adult life coincided with a band I’ve loved from the start (I was ‘only’ 29 when The Warning arrived, and it’s been almost 20 years now since) where I’ve still never seen that desire wane. When that’s finally loomed, even if it’s not how it’ll play out, it shakes you and who you are.
So while Freakout/Release may not have left the mark on me of some of the other Hot Chip albums of the past, I’ve come to appreciate it far more lately than I’d first expected. It’s also made me think about how our relationships with bands and their music evolves, and perhaps accept that nothing lasts forever. That if things do change, I’ll always have a huge catalogue of tracks to pick from and revel in that still hold their lustre to me. I don’t get even half the number of albums I love from this band with many others, so it’s also given me some welcome perspective about great it is to love a band for as long as this. And that’s why I’m going to take the album at face value, enjoy it for what it is, stay in the moment for as long as I can, and look forward to the day when I see them live on their next tour. I’ve been lucky to have them around.