Motion: Stagnation or Experimentation?

This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on November 17, 2014.

Scottish-born DJ and record producer Calvin Harris released his new album, “Motion,” on November 4. Although it is his highest-ranking debut, even reaching number one on the UK charts and number 3 on the Australian charts, the album itself has received lukewarm reviews from fans and critics alike.

Harris’ previous album, “18 Months,” was chockfull of our favorite club jams, such as “I Need Your Love” featuring Ellie Goulding, “Let’s Go” featuring Ne-Yo, “We Found Love” featuring Rihanna, “Sweet Nothing” featuring Florence Welch and his original track, “Feel So Close.” In fact, if you were to stop and ask a random person in the 18-28 age bracket their go-to club jam, it is at least 70% likely that one of these tracks would make the list.

Unfortunately, Harris may have fallen into the ‘Thriller/Bad” trap á la Michael Jackson – many artists trying to maintain relevancy after releasing a hit album. In fact, there are several parallels between Jackson’s “Bad” and “Motion,” the most obvious being that these respective albums follow(ed) smash albums that, while neither Harris nor Jackson’s first album, put each artist on the map. Like “Motion,” critics and fans eagerly awaited Jackson’s new sound, expecting another “Thriller.” While people born even ten years after the album’s 1988 release are still humming the title track or “Smooth Criminal,” and some critics would argue that “Bad” was more cerebral or technically better than its high-grossing predecessor, none of Jackson’s subsequent efforts were ever able to fill the shoes of “Thriller.” Additionally, both Jackson and Harris’ albums feature high-profile musicians and industry bigwigs, which added to the hype surrounding their release.

Did Harris already hit his musical apex two years ago, or would “Motion” have received stronger feedback if it did not have such a tough act to follow?

This is not to say that “Motion” contains no memorable hits. In fact, this summer’s hit, so originally titled “Summer,” has all the ingredients of a good techno song – up-tempo beat, variation in tempo and intensity and a dance beat that everyone can sing along to. However, everything about the track is perfunctory and just seems to feed off the format of Harris’s other successes, rather than anything new or groundbreaking. “Outside” featuring Ellie Goulding is similarly a ghost of his former efforts, particularly “Sweet Nothing.” While combining that hit single’s format with a new female vocalist may seem like a logical recipe for success, Goulding’s thin and transparent vocals do not match Welch’s sonic fire. Instrumentally, the song also lacks the tension of “Sweet Nothing” with its lack of fluctuation and its conformity to a pop rather than house format. So perhaps “Stagnation” might be a more appropriate title for the album?

In order to create something new, an artist must make mistakes and take risks. If one delves deeper into “Motion”‘s tracks, one can fears of true stagnation and find that Harris does venture into new territory, just without all the bells and whistles of contemporaries such as Zedd and David Guetta. His two forays into hip-hop – “Open Wide” featuring Big Sean and original instrumental track “Slow Acid” – in particular demonstrate the subtle artistry behind the album.

“Open Wide” has an almost-disappointing start, the standard ¾ syncopated rap beat through the first verse accompanied by equally vapid lyrics. It is almost as if Harris is acquiescing to his partner and giving him center stage in the track. However, Harris’ restraint tricks us. As we approach the bridge and chorus, the intensity increases, harkening back to Harris’ house roots. Then, in the dance break between the verse and the chorus, he incorporates a Spanish guitar sound to show sonic contrast and instrumentalism, rather than mere electronica, showing us the give and take of artistic collaboration.

“Slow Acid” is another example of how Harris weaves his sound to fit the mood and genre of the song. The thumping and prominent baseline, the siren sounds in the background and the brash and garbled melody all mesh together to recreate the raw energy of early 90s groups such as Public Enemy and Notorious B.I.G, therefore giving us the fundamental ingredients of a successful hip-hop song without the lyrics. The song seems to imply that the rhythmic flow and style, are just as important, if not more so, than the accompanying lyrics. In the chorus, Harris juxtaposes the energy with delicate pinging interludes just lightly flowing through the wall of sound. He is not merely trying to imitate hip-hop, but rather trying to explore its various facets, harkening back to his pre-“18 Months” days when he was just a techno nerd in Glasgow tinkering around with different sounds in his basement.

In addition to hip-hop, Harris also explores country. The fusion of techno and country is by no means a novel idea (even when discounting Rednex’s Frankenstein-like mutation also known as “Cotton Eye Joe,” coming to an eighth grade dance near you since 1994). Indeed, Avicci’s 2013 hits “Wake Me Up” and “Hey Brother” first introduced the concept that these two seemingly disparate genres were not such strange bedfellows after all. Harris, while imitating his contemporary, puts a unique and cerebral spin on the genre crossover in his song “Ecstasy.” The staccatto banjo-like sounds harken to the folk ballad, rather than a Nashville hoe-down. The husky vocals of featured artist Hurts gives the track a dark and haunted feel, allowing the listener to imagine the romantic loneliness of a starlit night in the middle of a forest. This track is a perfect example of how “Motion” is as much a visual album as anything else. In fact, I would venture to say that this is one of the best tracks, if not the best track, of the album in terms of both melody and creativity.

Although I had to listen to the album twice to understand what Harris is trying to attempt, it was because my ear already had an idea of how electronic music is supposed to sound. Harris creates an uphill battle for himself as an artist trying to pander to mainstream fans while simultaneously testing just how far he can push the envelope and deviate from the electronic canon. Perhaps a better title for the album is “Experimentation.” The question is, though, will this experimentation break through the instant gratification and mindlessness of the club scene? Will Harris fall under the same curse as Michael Jackson? 

Cover photo source:


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