Jamiroquai's first album in seven years, Automaton, aims to modernize the band's funk-pop sound. In lieu of tribal instrumentation and acid-jazz noodling, the group leans heavily on electronic production to supplement their trademark slinky basslines and funk guitar. But even as Jamiroquai taps into a robotic aesthetic similar to that of Daft Punk's seismic Random Access Memories, their retro-futurist trappings are used to illustrate that our increased dependence on technology costs us a piece of our humanity.
That's not an especially novel insight in 2017, when handwringing about the amount of time we spend in front of screens is commonplace. It's not even a new angle for Jamiroquai; dating back to their mid-'90s hit “Virtual Insanity,” frontman Jay Kay has often cautioned against human connection getting lost amid the myriad distractions of an increasingly complex society. But while Jamiroquai goes bigger and louder with the music on Automaton, the album's lyrical themes too often come off as oversimplified or half-baked. The paradox of cyberspace is that it simultaneously connects and isolates us, but this idea, like most topics addressed on the album, goes underexplored.
On Automaton, Kay yearns for what's lost and calls into question his place in a world full of changing tides. But for all its high-minded aspirations, the album fails to transcend the perspective of a man whose outlook comes across as largely shaped by social status and how he's viewed in the eyes of others, especially when it comes to the opposite sex. Too often, women are framed as unobtainable objects of desire, whether it's “angels in their stripper-wear” in “Nights Out in the Jungle, the limoncello-sipping “icy queen” on “Summer Girl,” or a fickle fool who gets her kicks “playing stupid tricks” on “Cloud 9.”
Jamiroquai updates their sound on Automaton, but their views on relationships are trapped in a bygone era.
Kay is transfixed by the power of seduction throughout the album, as he laments losing the magic of a fling in “Something About You” and lusts after a woman who “sets every pulse a-racing” on “Summer Girl.” In this way, Kay proves that putting a woman on a pedestal is simply another way to objectify her, an idea that's most blatant on the unfortunately titled “Hot Property.” Even when he pays tribute to his daughter on “Carla,” he adopts a possessive tone, telling her “I'm the only one you know you can trust.”
On “Dr. Buzz,” the British singer-songwriter touches on racial inequality and gun violence in America, but contrasted by its breezy tone, the song feels opportunistic and exploitative. Meanwhile, “Nights Out in the Jungle” was inspired by the tragic death of Amy Winehouse and Kay's own struggles with excess and addiction, but the track's lurid imagery ultimately serves to glorify a hedonistic celebrity lifestyle rather than decry it.
Musically, Automaton possesses a freewheeling swagger that's energizing and intensely danceable, and Jamiroquai updates their familiar brand of disco and funk into something that feels fresh and progressive. But unfortunately Kay doesn't have anything new to say, as his views on society, technology, and relationships are trapped in a bygone era.