Some things are best left alone. The temptation to meddle with an original work, milking it for all its commercial worth, can often be too tantalising to ignore: see Grease II, Jaws II, The Godfather III, the reformed Guns N Roses, the posthumous releases of Michael Jackson – in fact, the majority of posthumous releases – the list goes on. Now, disco-funk radio-favourites, Jamiroquai, join said list with their first offering in seven years, ‘Automaton’.
Famed for capturing a particularly British vogue for post-disco club tracks in the 1990s, Jamiroquai reached chart-topping popularity with a selection of similarly-backed songs, the majority of which all strangely centred around sci-fi themes (see ‘Space Cowboy’, ‘Cosmic Girl’, ‘Virtual Insanity’, ‘Emergency On Planet Earth’). Fronted by flamboyant lead-singer and ardent hat-wearer Jay Kay, in recent years the band had quietly backed out of the spotlight following 2010’s ‘Rock Dust Light Star’ LP. You could be forgiven for associating them these days only with a heavy rotation on the ‘Heart Club Classics’ playlist every Friday and Saturday night.
Dissatisfied with a relegation to the annals of pop history, though, this year sees a highly publicised comeback for the band with the release of their eighth studio album, ‘Automaton’. Suggested by the mechanical title, this latest record has led to Jamiroquai’s morphing from disco-pastiche specialists into a Daft Punk tribute act, without, however, the dance floor focus or inventiveness of production. Such a transition is heralded by lead singer Jay Kay’s removal of his preferred headgear, a culturally-appropriative Native American headdress, and donning instead a digitised version. This gesture can be read as a metaphor for the album itself: thinly-disguising an uncomfortable and offensive past gesture through a gloss of electronic retouching, nonetheless retaining its original offense.
Opening tracks ‘Shake It On’ and ‘Automaton’ seem to directly borrow from the Daft Punk catalogue, lifting synth arpeggios that wouldn’t sound amiss on their ‘Tron’ soundtrack, yet lacking the same atmospheric intensity. Whilst ‘Shake It On’ fades into a classic Jamiroquai chorus – a Chic chorus, in other words – ‘Automaton’ pushes the synths to the forefront, mirroring the robotic theme of the track with its seemingly robotic repetition. This inconsistent blend of electronic four-to-the-floor with analogue disco and soul characterises much of the album, especially in tracks like ‘Cloud 9’ and ‘Nights Out In The Jungle’, and has always been present in the Jamiroquai back catalogue.
In fact, the majority of the record feels like a selection of B-sides from the Jamiroquai songbook, retouched with the odd synth bassline and section of electronic drum programming, all tied together with Jay Kay’s falsetto and ear for a punchy chorus melody. For instance, funk-friendly cuts like ‘Superfresh’, ‘Something About You’ and ‘Summer Girl’ sound like the Jamiroquai of two decades ago, and are benignly pleasing, if unimaginative. Jamiroquai have always been a singles band, churning out radio hits like ‘Canned Heat’ and ‘Too Young To Die’, but they failed to create the pacing and diversity needed of a satisfying album.
On ‘Automaton’, the band falters under the weight of its previous singles, leaving any possibility for chart success mired in a sound that comes across as tired and unoriginal, and the album listening experience as a monotonous ordeal. Ultimately, Jay Kay maintains his propensity for offense, crooning “my baby’s hot property”, negating a century’s worth of women’s emancipation over a rumbling disco bass, and summing up the record as something better left unsaid.
Words: Ammar Kalia
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