Is dance music really all about the vocalist? We had that debate here at Slant Magazine many years ago, and it got a bit nasty. I’m not saying any of us who worked on our list of 100 Greatest Dance Songs ever actually thought that the singer was the foremost element in any great dance song, but there were certainly those among us for whom it held equal ground with beats and basslines. I can admit I was one of the dissenters, thinking the latter two clearly more integral. And yet, I compare Blue Songs to Hercules and Love Affair’s earlier, infinitely more successful eponymous album…and it gives me pause…on the dance floor…where to pause is to die.
I’ve never been much of a fan of demon cabaret singer Antony Hegarty’s head-voice interpretations, ever since I was first introduced to them on Björk’s Volta. The crisply enunciated consonants, the confident melodrama, the sheer elongated presence. They all dare to be ignored, and it proves impossible. But Hegarty’s contributions to Hercules and Love Affair were monstrous, a crucial postmodern spin on the legacy of Jocelyn Brown, revised by way of Amanda Lear. His “Blind” is an astrologically epic disco ball-illuminated hymn of unwilling isolation that works just as well in its late-‘80s pseudo-synth-pop album version as it does in the expansive, elemental house remix by Frankie Knuckles. The reason it worked? Anthony’s insistently intimate voice, which pushed the song’s central metaphor beyond imagery and into a tactile representation of the closeness Antony wants but can’t quite grasp.
As far as production and structure go, Blue Songs isn’t too significant a step down from those heights. DJ Andy Butler’s sound retains its veracity, even as he opens up well beyond the no wave he explored on that previous album. The rhythm guitar counterpoint from “Answers Come in Dreams” come straight from Larry Levan’s remix of Gwen Guthrie’s “Peanut Butter.” The early Chicago house of “Step Up” is a note-perfect approximation, so to speak, of the genre’s shaky musicianship—assisted capably, if generically, by Kele Okereke. “My House” boasts a striking, hollow bassline that could’ve just as easily come from Adonis. And the urgent electro-balladry of “Boy Blue” seems more like a page from the Chemical Brothers’s playbook than Blondie’s or Cristina’s.
But what’s missing is that nagging vocal that hovers somewhere between sublime and corrosive, as so many of the great performances in dance music have. I’d rather wrestle with my love-hate relationship to Antony stumbling around “Blind” than absorb an album whose comparative ugly highlight comes from the mantra “Don’t keep me in the dark, I want devotion” in “I Can’t Wait.” As the album’s final song says, “It’s Alright,” but the bar was set too high for something like this to keep four a.m. eternal.