Alexis Taylor’s reliance on plaintive piano keys in subdued, contemplative ballads was most pronounced on 2016’s Piano, a drab album that was stripped down to nothing but its titular instrument and the Hot Chip frontman’s wispy falsetto. On his fourth solo effort, Beautiful Thing, Taylor brings in DFA Records co-founder Tim Goldsworthy as producer, which would seem to hint at a possible shift back toward Taylor’s dance-punk roots. But while there’s certainly no shortage of sonic experimentation woven into this relatively more adventurous album, the British singer-songwriter struggles to find an effective balance between the added electronic accoutrements and the minimalist core that informs his solo work.
“Dreaming Another Life” comes closest to achieving that balance, as the ethereal atmospherics and quavering psychedelic effects never overcrowd the mix. But from track to track, Beautiful Thing comes across as alternately heavy-handed and slipshod. Taylor claims he wrote the power-pop track “Oh Baby” in minutes, and it shows. Its breezy melody and simplistic lyrics—containing warm and fuzzy images of adoring gazes and lovingly held hands—may be intended as homage to the Beatles and Big Star, but the track just comes off as lazily derivative. Conversely, the cluttered title track is experimental to a fault, as Taylor and Goldsworthy pile on often abrasive textures to the point of near-cacophony, overwhelming Taylor’s airy vocal.
Thematically, Taylor repeatedly and self-indulgently muses about what it means to make art. On the plodding piano ballad “A Hit Song,” he stretches his wafer-thin voice to the point of cracking as he sings about a desire to write a “straight-to-your-heart song” that will cause tears to stream down the listener’s face, while offering up trite moralizing about pop music not always telling the truth. With the ambient “Deep Cut,” he coos about the importance of creating “something you can feel” while warning against getting caught up in idealism and illusion. Ironically, though he sings about “making a mark that is pure joy,” the song is so gossamer-light that it doesn’t leave much of an impression. Taylor’s tendency toward mantra-like repetition hits its peak as he tackles the subject of writer’s block on “Roll on Blank Tapes”: He claims to have “nothing to say” before repeating nonsensical phrases about the soullessness of drum machines and the legality of skateboarding.
Throughout Beautiful Thing, Taylor is prone to polar extremes of either mopey self-doubt or contrived affirmation, and in either case he expresses emotion in only the broadest of terms. Whether it’s melodramatically asking, “What am I supposed to be?,” on “Out of Time,” or offering up maudlin hyperbole on “I Feel You,” Taylor only manages half-formed ideas and unfocused sonic embellishments that feel as aimless as walking in circles.