Calvin Harris’s transformation from ’80s-cribbing electro-house phenom to mainstream EDM’s most visible name-brand producer, with the tabloid ignominy to boot, is just another head-scratching tale from the post-millennial music landscape. Pop-radio listeners are undoubtedly familiar with the Calvin Harris formula: militaristic 4/4 bass drum, tawdry lyrics about vague longing, a syncopated synthesizer melody, and the inevitable snare buildup to either a whooshing silence or a super-charged version of the chorus. Like the guitar solos and crowd sing-alongs of hair metal, these EDM power moves can be pure dynamite when they work.
“Blame,” from Harris’s fourth album, Motion, is a prime example, with a soaring octave leap from vocalist John Newman and what might actually qualify as counterpoint in the final pre-chorus, providing sophistication to a pop style that emphasizes brute force over everything else. Regrettably, such ear candy is few and far between. Opener “Faith” comes in flaccidly, with Harris’s pitch-corrected vocals veering into chipmunk territory. The most notable characteristic of “Outside,” featuring Ellie Goulding, is that the hook’s cadence is exactly the same as the Carly Rae Jepsen/Owl City song “Good Time,” but it lacks that song’s cutesy charm. “Open Wide” can only aspire to such blandness, as Big Sean’s clumsy fellatio-based lyrics render the track virtually unlistenable.
However, when Harris gets back to the retro-leaning electro of his 2007 album I Created Disco, Motion begins to break out of its cycle of predictability. Gwen Stefani lends her Blondie-at-Hot-Topic cool to the enjoyable vintage synth workout “Together,” and though “Pray to God,” featuring Haim, sounds largely like a Flock of Seagulls rip-off, it at least possesses a discernable identity apart from the rest of Motion. Even the instrumental acid-house exercise “Slow Acid” elicits nostalgia for a time when raves weren’t sponsored by Bud Light Lime-a-Ritas, though Harris can’t help but strip away the genre’s aggression and replace it with his signature big-tent friendliness. “Slow Acid” might as well be “Diet Acid.”