The photo on the cover of Georgia Barnes’s second album seems telling. At first glance, it looks like one of those classic late 80s/early 90s club shots that get ageing acid house veterans moist-eyed with nostalgia. If you were hopelessly prone to romanticising, you might imagine that the people in it were dancing to a track made by Barnes’s father Neil, one-half of progressive house pioneers Leftfield. But it isn’t anything of the sort. On closer examination, it’s not a vintage photo of a rave but of a kids’ party; a 1988 image by photographer Nancy Honey, titled St Stephen’s School Disco, Bath.
It perfectly fits the contents of Seeking Thrills, an album that is ostensibly about hedonistic exhilaration. Over the next 12 months, British pop theoretically could come up with a more stirring evocation of losing yourself on the dancefloor than Barnes repeatedly crying “It’s the rhythm, the rhythm” at the close of 24 Hours, but you wouldn’t bank on it. Furthermore, the album seems to be modelled, at least vaguely, on the trajectory of a big night out, from the dusk-settling anticipation of opener Started Out (“Be wicked and bold now”), through the aforementioned saucer-eyed euphoria, to a becalmed comedown that’s equal parts dazed and reflective. There is a distinctly woozy, 6am quality to the electronics on Ultimate Sailor, while closer Honey Dripping Sky features wistful lyrics – “Did you want to stay? Mistakes were made – I wasn’t thinking straight” – streaked with smears of dissonant synthesiser. So far, so in keeping with a grand tradition of albums from the Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole to Katy B’s On a Mission, that hymn the thrills of being, as 24 Hours puts it, “consumed by night”. But Seeking Thrills gradually reveals itself to be something less straightforward than that.
On the surface, it sounds like an album made under the influence of Robyn, but beneath the Dancing on My Own-style synths of About Work the Dancefloor and 24 Hours lurks something more individual and idiosyncratic. You hear it in Barnes’s voice, boldly placed front and centre in the mix and ruthlessly stripped of any voguish vocal affectations. There’s no audible AutoTune, no showy trills or melisma, no faux-American mannerisms. She sounds very British. More importantly, she sounds like herself. There’s a matching sense of personal identity about the music. Seeking Thrills is a more polished album than its angular, distortion-heavy predecessor, Georgia (2015), and Barnes can clearly knock out effervescent pop songs to order, hence her recent Radio 1 ubiquity. But Seeking Thrills seldom cleaves to the kind of well-worn tropes that pack the charts.
A lot has been made of the influence of 80s house and techno on its sound, which feels slightly inaccurate. It’s not that Barnes doesn’t know her dance music history – virtually the first thing you hear on Seeking Thrills is a bass line modelled on that of Larry Heard’s Chicago house classic Mystery of Love. And the whole album feels infected with the weird, reverb-slathered spaciness that helped make early house singles sound so jolting and alien on arrival. But Barnes is blessed with the ability to take vintage influences and absorb them so thoroughly that what seeps out sounds different from her source material, and stamped with her own character. Highlight Ray Guns is a case in point. It manages to be influenced by dub reggae while scrupulously avoiding the kind of cliches artists tend to indulge in when making music influenced by dub reggae. It achieves the cavernous, chaotic feel without using any of the standard sonic signifiers. The results are fantastic: a dense, disorientating swirl of electronic sound, a killer tune with a beat that sounds more like Missy Elliott’s Get Ur Freak On than anything that came out of Kingston’s studios in the 1970s.
The whole record is shot through with an affecting melancholy, which may come from the fact that the songs depict Barnes as an observer rather than a participant, watching from the sidelines as people lose themselves. There’s a note of distance and longing in About Work the Dancefloor’s refrain: “You want me to stay a while, to be in a moment with you.” But the lyrics are never judgmental or condescending. If she sees the euphoria of the dancefloor for what it is, a fleeting escape from a reality you’re going to have face sooner or later (the protagonist of Mellow “doesn’t want anyone to tell her she’s on the run”), she also sees its worth as a moment of connection in an increasingly atomised world. Chemical assistance notwithstanding, there’s something pure at its centre: perhaps latter-day clubbers aren’t so different from the cover’s school disco-goers after all.
This week Alexis listened to
Released last November, Sudan Archives’ album has grown and grown on me: unlike a lot of her alt-R&B peers, she remembers to write songs, as evidenced by the earworm hook of Glorious.