Chromeo’s 2014 album White Women was a rare achievement: a commercial breakthrough that enriched the electro-funk revivalist sound rather than watering it down for the masses. With their latest, Head Over Heels, the Canadian electro-funk duo is making a more brazen bid for the mainstream with a collection of frothy, nostalgic summer jams, though the album doesn’t quite nail the fusion of retro aesthetics and contemporary pop hooks that turned Bruno Mars’s similarly flavored 24K Magic into a pop juggernaut.
Structurally and conceptually, Head Over Heels is clearly meant to be White Women Part 2. This album’s songs again pair singer-guitarist Dave 1 and multi-instrumentalist P-Thugg with an eclectic mix of guests: trap-soul warbler D.R.A.M., rappers French Montana and Stefflon Don, emerging R&B singer Amber Mark, and slow-jam stylist The-Dream, among others. Of those songs, one is marked an “interlude”—though this year’s model, “Right Back Home to You,” is more substantive than White Women’s “Ezra’s Interlude”—and one, “Bedroom Calling,” is a climactic mini-epic in two movements. Lyrically, Chromeo don’t stray far from the self-described “Larry David funk” of their previous efforts, with relationship foibles and neuroses cropping up on almost every track—most notably “Slumming It,” a late-night disco groove in which Dave 1 frets over a woman who’s “only with me for the credibility.”
Like their fellow DJs-turned-musicians Mark Ronson and Jamie Lidell, Dave 1 and P-Thugg have a meticulous ear for the sonic particularities of their influences. Period-authentic touches, from synthesizer swells that bring to mind Kashif to vocoder lines in the vein of Roger Troutman, abound throughout the album. But the end result can sometimes feel like a collection of impeccably polished musical signifiers without much of anything to signify. Tracks like lead single “Juice” have all the makings of a 1980s-style R&B heater, but their funk feels freeze-dried. It doesn’t help that lyrics like “Relationships ain’t a democracy/I’m good if you just stay on top of me” aren’t as clever or cheekily post-feminist as the writers seem to think they are.
Head Over Heels works best when Chromeo is able to find the elusive sweet spot between charming pop hooks and music-geek verisimilitude. “Bad Decision,” for example, marries an irresistible Prince-like bounce to a big chorus and a lyrical conceit that’s amusing but not grating. “Just Friends” is another highlight, with Amber Mark serving as Dave 1’s foil in a just-clever-enough nod to vintage pop duets like Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract.” Chromeo’s formula is well-suited to producing unpretentious, likeable pop-funk; it’s just too bad that it’s never felt more like a formula than ever before.