Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review // Calvin Harris - 18 Months

It's a weird feeling, realizing that one of your favorite artists has sold out. It's weirder realizing that you don't mind.

The first thing that struck me while listening to Calvin Harris's new album, 18 Months, is how many of the songs I'd already heard before at clubs and parties and just never knew they were Calvin Harris because they sound nothing like him. In fact, as far as I can tell, Calvin himself only sings on two songs, and one of them only as a fairly minor role.

It's pretty obvious listening to 18 Months what Calvin was up to: He's chasing club hits, and he's doing it from an incredibly academic perspective. He's definitely successful at it, but there's a hint of cynicism behind the whole album that doesn't come as much of a surprise when you consider that Calvin freely admits to being really awkward and shy, passing on the drinking and partying that defines the DJ lifestyle. He doesn't even like dancing. So he naturally approaches designing a club hit from an unnatural perspective, from the outside fringes of that world like an uprooted wallflower withering at a party.

And it shows. Almost every song on the album follows the exact same build-and-release structure and has the same three ingredients: a short, repeating synth riff; metronomic, driving bass; and a guest vocalist.

Calvin used to embrace his awkwardness in his music with a faux-egotistical wink; now it feels like he's trying to fly under the radar and pass for one of the cool kids. He doesn't sing about all the different types of girls he likes (but isn't getting) anymore. Instead he has guest vocalists come on to tackle such club-friendly themes as "tonight" and "drinking" to be more palatable to the general public.

One of the songs, a sophisticated little ditty cleverly titled "Drinking From The Bottle," decides to drop all pretense and just cuts to the chase: "Forget about tomorrow / Tonight, we're drinking from the bottle." Another song, "Let's Go," follows suit with lines so generic they sound like a parody: "Tomorrow's good, tonight is better / Let’s make it happen / Let’s make it happen tonight."

Those lyrics from the guy who calls himself "the anti-party," likes going to bed early, doesn't drink, and said he was "really awkward" when Rihanna invited him to hang out in her dressing room with her. It seems just a tad disingenuous in that context.

So yeah, as a huge fan of Calvin Harris's last two records, it's tough to look at 18 Months or his new Ryan Gosling in Drive-inspired makeover without two spoonfuls of skepticism. But it's too easy to get pulled into the songs here to care all that much, even when he's transparently sticking to the club song formula, and that's where he succeeds most. Yes, I could tell that Calvin was trying to draw me into "We'll Be Coming Back" in the cheapest possible ways he could, but that didn't stop me from chanting "we'll be coming back for you one day" and hitting my steering wheel to the beat the whole drive to work.

Of course, that's the interesting thing about releasing an album of dance songs: What is that experience like away from the dance floor? Well, let me tell you, there's something kind of sad about listening to a club banger like "We Found Love" in your room by yourself. 18 Months doesn't even feel like an album, really; it's just a collection of disconnected singles. But I guess that's just what happens when practically every song features a new guest vocalist.

They aren't bad songs. It just sounds like listening to the radio or something. They aren't bad.

Actually, okay, wait. That's not entirely true. "Awooga" might just be the most annoying song I've heard in my entire life, like Calvin left the room and a five-year-old jumped onto his synth.

I still like the album though. "Green Valley" and "School" are both low-key tracks with a lot of style and just a dollop of the funk that made Calvin's last album, Ready For The Weekend, so great. Two early songs, "Bounce" and "Feel So Close," feel like Calvin trying to brace long-time fans like myself for his transition into mainstream obscurity with "We Found Love" and the rest of the album.

Like I said before, I really don't mind. If his goal was to become a household name, he achieved that, and I'm glad he did. I realized that I'd never actually heard Calvin Harris being played in public until 18 Months. Now I can't get away from him. I mean, honestly, the first place I heard "Let's Go" was in a Zumba class (shut up) and had no idea I was listening to Calvin Harris until I heard it again on the album.

And that's kind of what defines 18 Months for me. It doesn't sound anything like his old stuff. It's a pretty obvious grab at generating an album's worth of club hits that all sound generic enough to drift dangerously close to "all these songs sound the same" territory. It's catchy, mindless fun. And sometimes, that's enough.

Calvin Harris — 18 Months / $9.99 / Released October 30, 2012


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