Does anyone remember Ellie Goulding and overly dramatic and cleanly produced EDM tracks? Well Calvin Harris sure doesn’t. His newest album Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 sees the legendary UK producer turn a new leaf in his discography, reinventing his sound to fit modern chart-topping music, while simultaneously borrowing sounds from the 80’s to give the album an inexplicably groovy and mesmerising instrumental palette.
I think like many music fans my age, it is refreshing to see chart-topping music be eclectic again. If you browse the hot 100 billboard tracks right now, there is music for every type of listener, from Ed Sheeran, Kendrick Lamar and even the Latin phenomena “Despacito”. However, search the archives for the same chart exactly 5 years ago (seriously do it, I’ll wait) and you’ll see the top 100 was, for the most part, composed of very clean, smooth pop and EDM tracks that are all more or less sonically interchangeable. This is the mainstream music world we grew up in.
“What does an artist do when the style of music that made him the highest paid DJ in the world, falls flat on its face? “
Calvin Harris was more than an occasional visitor to these charts back in the day, in fact he popularised this style of music. Hence I, and I’m sure many others, have written off Calvin as a product of a time that has gone and passed.
Next thing you know, “Slide”, the first single off this project drops, and by the features alone (boasting the Migos and Frank Ocean), I was stopped in my tracks. Once I listened to the song, with its groovy instrumentals complemented by Frank’s ethereal voice backed by some banging (and weirdly romantic may I add) couple of verses by Migos, I instantly started anticipating this record.
“There is something distinctly reminiscent of 1980s boogie”
Now what does an artist do when the style of music that made him the highest paid DJ in the world, falls flat on its face? This is the question Calvin sets out to answer with Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 and a big part of that answer is “borrow from the past, mould for the future”.
Unlike Calvin’s debut album I Created Disco, Bounces is definitely not a disco album, but it is very easy to identify a lot of sounds which Calvin is pulling from his early discography. The synthesisers, the groovy baselines, all of that shows up on several spots on Funk Wav.
While we are still on the instrumental palette of the album however, it is to be noted that it treads a lot of different genres. Dance and electronic-disco music are surely present , but so is G-funk, trap and also more mainstream pop sounds. The ease with which Calvin manipulates all these genres to form a (mostly) instrumentally cohesive album is astounding. Without further ado, here’s a track-by-track breakdown.
After “Slide” comes “Cash Out”, featuring Schoolboy Q, D.R.A.M. and PARTYNEXTDOOR. This is easily my favourite track on the entire album. I love the high-pitched synthesiser melody that seems straight out of an 80’s video game, together with the groovy drum beat that ties the song in a nostalgic 80’s summer ribbon. Of course Schoolboy Q has no difficulty following this beat but the standouts have to be D.R.A.M. and PARTYNEXTDOOR. The former’s voice inflexions at the end of the track top-up the groove, and I swear this is the first time I’ve ever heard PARTYNEXTDOOR sing like he’s actually enjoying himself.
Next are “Heatstroke” and “Rollin”, both of which were released prior to this album. “Heatstroke” is one of the most uplifting and energetic tunes (in an album that is already both) which is no surprise given Pharrell’s involvement. There is something distinctly reminiscent of 1980s boogie on it and while yes some of Young Thug’s autotuned lyrics are cringe-worthy (“king of the jungle, tycoon”), they help lighten the track and both Ariana and Pharrell offer striking performances.
“The song just feels very uninspired and features a particularly bad recreation of a G-funk beat “
“Rollin” sounds great and super groovy. I particularly appreciated the summer vibes of the melody and Khalid’s contribution, although I have to say Future’s harsh, robotic voice contrasted badly with Calvin’s groovy vibes.
Next track “Prayers Up” featuring Travis Scott is the first track which feels as if the instrumentals take a back seat. It’s definitely not bad, it features a low-pitched synthesiser line that complements Travis’ outlandish vocal inflexions and ad libs (of which I am a fan) well, but it’s clear that the focus of the song is on Travis doing his thing.
“Holiday” and “Skrt on Me” are my least favourites. “Holiday” isn’t necessarily bad, and I sure do appreciate that Calvin got Takeoff and Snoop Dogg on the same track without either sounding awkward. The song just feels very uninspired and features a particularly bad recreation of a G-funk beat with some melodic bits thrown in to fit with the album’s vibe. It also seems like the three artists are competing on who is able to phone it in the most.
As for “Skrt On Me”, well. I haven’t enjoyed a Nicki Minaj track since 2010 so I guess they did the best they could but every time I hear “Bring me the blunt. Emily Blunt” I die a little inside.
“Feels” is probably my second favourite track. The guitars are a welcome addition and the beat is groovy as hell. Katy Perry, Pharrell and even Big Sean are all pretty good, and the line “do you like getting paid or getting paid attention?” is officially in the running for the most unintentionally clever line of 2017.
“It’s great to see an artist at this phase in his career try new sounds and have them result in a very solid album.”
I’ve heard a lot of people dislike “Faking It” but I love Kehlani and have a sweet spot for Lil Yachty (“remember that time I put those pepperoni’s on your face/ Made you a creature/ Now I think about you every single time I eat pizza”. I guarantee you’re laughing right now). Also the deep baseline complemented by the sporadic piano high-note sounds great to me. Haters will hate.
The closer “Hard to Love” featuring relatively unknown Jessie Reyes is beautiful. The guitar riff together with Reyes’ amazing voice and pretty heartbreaking lyrics – “I’d rather be hard to love than easy to leave”- are genuinely captivating. I’d keep my eyes peeled for whatever Reyes does next.
All in all, this album is solid. The relatively consistent musical palette, the nostalgia, the inclusion of contemporary artists and what they bring to the table all wraps up nicely. At a time where a myriad of artists will be coming out with summer albums, this one certainly stands out from the bunch of Grateful’s out there that are just a collection of unimpressive middle of the road tracks.
Apart from what I’ve mentioned, my biggest disappointment with Bounces is what could’ve been. When I read the apple music description for the album, “Calvin is reinventing the banger”, I was beyond excited. Truthfully, this isn’t the case. In contrast to other artists that have released “retro” albums recently like Childish Gambino, this limits itself to clinging to the nostalgia of old sounds rather than recreating them faithfully, which is fine as long as the project feels unique, which this album often fails to do.
In short, I would’ve liked the album to not only borrow from the past and use new artists in it, I would’ve wanted it to push the envelope of what can be done with electronic-disco, with all its intricacies, and moulding it to today’s music standards. “Redesign the banger”. But maybe that’s not for the Calvin Harris’ of the world to do and I’m just being nitpicky, the album is still really good and it’s great to see an artist at this phase in his career try new sounds and have them result in a very solid album. Looking forward to Vol. 2.
Image courtesy of Columbia Records.