If there ever were ever a time when people were crying out for uncomplicated party music, it would be right about now. Cometh the end of restrictions, cometh the band: Jungle, two west London singer-producers and their five-strong backing band of live multi-instrumentalists playing the first of four sold-out nights in London; two more follow in Manchester before the band head to the US. They are tasked with kicking a shimmering, feelgood disco ball through a wide open goal.
Jungle’s third album, Loving in Stereo, arrived last month cat’s-cradled in 70s strings. Propelled by dancefloor imperatives, it was primed to be one of the chief soundtracks to the Great Resumption, the neo-disco album to listen to now that the Dua Lipa one might finally be getting old.
To further underscore how this duo have chimed with the times, Jungle’s song, Keep Moving, has been on heavy rotation as the soundtrack to a Peloton ad on YouTube for weeks (or it could just be my own sadistic algorithm). Like Celeste’s Stop This Flame, Jungle’s Keep Moving is a song that starts off sounding magisterial but grows trite in ubiquity (Stop This Flame was Sky Sports’ Premier League intro music last year).
Tonight, Jungle unleash Keep Moving early in their set. The crowd roar their approval. Back in its natural habitat – that is, accompanied by the warm press of bodies, by a clever architectural light show and a vivacious percussionist rather than a hectoring Peloton spin class autocrat – Keep Moving sounds really good again. There’s a hell of lot of surface to it, but there’s depth too. Beneath the wipe-clean falsettos of Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland, who are sited behind keyboards at the front of the stage, beneath the barrage of disco signifiers and the song’s sync-ready maxim, is some useful wisdom, echoed by dance music since time immemorial: moving your body can sometimes help you out of whatever psychological rut you might be in. The audience keep up an appreciative shuffle all night long.
It’s a good result for Jungle, a formerly shadowy pair who have managed to persuade lightning to strike twice. Until now, their greatest hit to date was the fantastically well-appointed Busy Earnin’, which appeared on their self-titled debut album of 2014. A second album, For Ever (2018), didn’t quite capture the public imagination as much as their Mercury-nominated debut. In broad strokes, For Ever wound down the BPM, soundtracking the breakups Lloyd-Watson and McFarland were going through at the time. There was another breakup too: they parted ways with their record company, XL, to set up on their own.
To judge by chart performance, the market preferred Jungle to be up, not down. The duo got the message, and so Loving in Stereo contains banger after banger, offset with just enough clever production to prick up the ears of the non-aligned, and just enough contrapuntal shade to keep blandness at bay. The hugely influential producer Inflo (Michael Kiwanuka, Sault, Little Simz) contributed to some of these tracks, and there is a certain shared aesthetic here – not just of soul and funk as foundational sounds, but orchestral loops as well – that keeps things interesting. When Jungle play more new songs, such as the bustling earworms Talk About It and No Rules, there’s no new-album hesitancy whatsoever in the crowd.
For all the euphoric rump-shaking in this set, there is a but coming. A lot of Jungle’s music does sound like it was focus-grouped into existence by a group of sync agents (sync agents are the people who land bands the Peloton ads). Near the end of the set, Can’t Stop the Stars sounds like the title music to some teatime BBC One celebrity gameshow: horns like cheese triangles, strings like treacle, feather-light vocals. To give Jungle credit, though, the Zen-like lyric urges the listener not to try to control the things they can’t.
Jungle’s very consistency can become samey. They operate within strict parameters: twin male falsettos, singing over vintage 70s sounds mixed with the easygoing sampledelia of the Avalanches. As nice as all that is, disruptions become imperative. When rapper Bas appears on a video screen behind the band to sing Romeo, another single off the new album that drives home Jungle’s debt to Gorillaz, the change of auditory scenery is a boon.
When the keyboard player whips out a flute on Bonnie Hill, the sheer pleasure of it is disproportionate to the brevity of the solo. (If the album does well, they really ought to get a string section for the next tour.) On the very rare occasions when Lloyd-Watson and McFarland sing in their lower register, as they do on the second album’s favoured track Casio, the set snaps back into focus. Given the setting – of a crowd keen to dance the last 18 months away – what happens when Jungle play Cherry, a minimal song off their second album, is somewhat counterintuitive. “You’re never gonna change me,” sulks the moody song, “I was already changing.” The room erupts with cheers.