Calvin Harris: Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1 review – EDM's Mr Darcy warily eyes a post-disco future

The $60m DJ corrals a firmament of stars from Rihanna and Pharrell to Lil’ Yachty for this somewhat apprehensive, understated 80s-tinged solo album

Interviewed in a recent issue of a men’s lifestyle magazine, Calvin Harris exudes a quiet confidence, as indeed you might if your job netted you an alleged $300,000 a night. Once a prickly and difficult interviewee, he now gives out a Zen-like calm – uninterested in the thoughts of critics who suggest almost no one in musical history has made so little go such a long way. In the accompanying photographs, he emerges from the swimming pool at his Beverly Hills home, fully clothed and dripping wet, EDM’s own Mr Darcy: Harris’s transformation from gawky-looking dance music producer from Dumfries to ripped, tanned Giorgio Armani underwear model being the most visible manifestation of his astonishingly successful career overhaul.

And yet, listening to Harris’s fifth solo album, a certain prickle of unease is easily detectable. Whatever you make of his music, anyone who transforms himself from a middling British pop-house producer into the world’s highest-paid DJ virtually overnight clearly isn’t an idiot: if you believe Forbes magazine, he earned $63m (£48m) last year, a slight decrease on the $66m he trousered in both 2015 and 2014. He’s clearly smart enough to realise that the EDM bubble that bore him to superstardom is bound to burst sooner or later. One Las Vegas club manager was predicting its imminent demise in 2013 and the intervening years have been filled with stories of cancelled festivals, DJs retiring and promotion companies going bankrupt. When the bubble does pop, Harris is presumably smart enough to realise that Las Vegas – which deals with less successful hotels by dynamiting them – is not likely to hang around, lovingly nurturing music from which the commercial bloom has faded. So a distinct sense of making preparations for the future attends Funk WAV Bounces Vol 1. It’s an album that attempts to answer the deathless question posed by the Richard Hewson Orchestra at the height of an earlier dance music boom: what shall we do when the disco’s over?

Watch the trailer for Funk WAV Bounces Vol 1

Ironically, at least part of Harris’s answer involves the club music that flourished in disco’s wake. “Party like it’s 1980” suggests Schoolboy Q on Cash Out, and while the album’s supporting cast of hip-hop and R&B stars is pretty eye-popping – it includes Migos, Frank Ocean, Young Thug, Travis Scott, Future and Lil Yachty – the most immediately noticeable thing about Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1 is how much chunks of it are audibly in thrall to the sound of early 80s boogie. Slide comes decorated with the kind of period high-pitched synth sound found on D-Train’s You’re the One for Me or the Strikers’ Body Music; the liberal application of Auto-Tune notwithstanding, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Heatstroke being released on Prelude Records in 1983. The backing track of Feels, meanwhile, carries a distinct hint of Compass Point Studios, the go-to Nassau location for 80s pop stars looking to add a hip, reggae-infused sheen to their music.

This is all good retro fun, particularly the latter two tracks, on which the presence of Pharrell Williams among the writing credits seems to lift the tune out of the ordinary. Harris is clearly perfectly capable of coming up with irrefutable pop bangers unaided – Rihanna’s We Found Love is one of the few global pop smashes in recent years to have been written and produced by one person, rather than a vast committee – but on an album where irrefutable pop bangers are conspicuous by their absence, it’s hard not to notice that the two songs Williams contributes to are by far the most striking melodically.

Harris seems unsure whether an 80s boogie revival is the future of either dance music or mainstream pop, however. Elsewhere, there’s a sense of bets being hedged and versatility being demonstrated to varying degrees of success. Rollin and Holiday have a G-funk air about them – the sound of the latter, beefed up by a memorable chorus, perfectly befitting its guest star Snoop Dogg. The least well–known name among the supporting cast, Canadian-Columbian singer Jessie Reyez, turns out to be a real find, her husky voice floating over a languidly strummed guitar on Hard to Love. Certainly, this stuff is more enjoyable than Faking It, which lumbers along at the pace of the theme from Mastermind, and Skrt (sic) on Me, a pallid dancehall track you suspect may have been fished out of the bin after Rihanna rejected it.

For all its starry supporting cast, Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1 doesn’t sound like an album laden with hits. But perhaps that’s deliberate: given that 2012’s 18 Months featured nine hit singles among its 15 tracks, Calvin Harris might reasonably suggest that he’s been there and done that. Neither a triumph nor a disaster, it shows off a noticeably broader musical range than the sound that made him famous, without really delivering anything to shock naysayers into reappraisal. Where that leaves him in a post-EDM world is a moot point, although as Harris would doubtless point out, having pulled off one of the most lucrative career overhauls in recent pop history, his future seems pretty secure.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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