Manifold are the surprising ways in which the P2P revolution has transformed the indie scene, but even so, who would have guessed that the aughts was going to be the decade that taught hipsters how to dance? Used to be that indie fans unanimously located their scene’s leading lights among the art-rock avant-garde—you know, Fugazi, Radiohead, and their ilk. And it’s not that those kinds of bands have ceased to matter, but their privileged position among indie fans is no longer one they can for granted.. See, for example, 2010’s year-end lists, where archetypally difficult indie acts like Deerhunter defended their turf against the more instantly gratifying likes of Robyn, Big Boi, and LCD Soundsystem. Rock isn’t dead, but rockism is, and as a result, indie music has become the blob. Its power entirely depends on its ability to keep absorbing new trends, even those that originate in the mainstream. In the post-P2P indie scene, good taste is largely taken to be a function of eclecticism, DIY fetishists might as well be Amish, and arguing that a song sounds derivative of its influences or that it isn’t “about” anything sounds like an annoying prejudice. If the improbable détente between indie and dance were ever to occur, this was the time.
Of course, the decade’s reigning tastemakers couldn’t just stand back and let the good times roll without exhibiting the kind of self-awareness, which, more than any particular style of music, is the scene’s definitive feature. Indie bloggers embraced dance music with an awkward side-hug, like a kid at a middle school dance who isn’t sure if he’s “joke-dancing” with the girl from his science class or really busting a move. Bloghouse, new rave, indietronica: The hokey labels often circulated faster than the MP3s which they purportedly described, but by the end of the decade, acts like Hot Chip, Justice, Crystal Castles, and LCD Soundsystem were riding high on their own unimpeachable cool, whatever you chose to call them. Cut Copy’s In Ghost Colours may not have added anything fundamentally new to the mix, but its capable fusion of house, new wave, dance-rock, and ambient electronic sounds put an exclamation point on the preceding half-decade of dance-floor discovery. And that’s to say nothing of “Hearts on Fire,” the group’s damn-near invincible breakthrough single.
Ultimately, In Ghost Colours was a hedonistic pastiche all the way down—a shameless embrace of all things transient and trendy in the year 2008. In one of the few negative reviews of the album, Slant‘s David Hughes claimed that Cut Copy’s “overabundance of ideas and energy” belied their lack of focus. While I disagree with his overall assessment of the album, I think he was on to something. Listening to the giddy mash-up tells you a lot about the kind of music that Cut Copy likes, but not much about the kind they’d like to make, and the whole affair is sort of like attending a phenomenal dance party with a stellar guest list where you never get to meet the hosts. Which means that Cut Copy is oddly positioned for the release of Zonoscope. They’re at the top of the indie-dance heap, but in some sense, they’re still an unproven quantity.
Clearly there’s a lot riding on this album, but Cut Copy opens it like they’ve got nothing to prove. “Need You Now” confidently mixes the textures of ambient disco and new wave, and it takes its time doing it too: With two minutes on even the longest cuts from In Ghost Colours, it shows that Cut Copy is in no rush to play their hand. There’s a moment a couple of minutes in where the music swells and the background singers start “ooh-ooh”-ing their asses off, but Cut Copy withholds on the expected chorus, instead building the song to a glittery, not-at-all ambient-disco climax. Much of Zonoscope follows suit. It’s a slow-burner of a sequel that shows Cut Copy being patient, even stingy, with their hooks. The house, electro-pop, and hip-hop flourishes that made the best songs on In Ghost Colours so immediately memorable haven’t been discarded, they just don’t jump out of the mix in the same way. Everything is subordinated to Zonoscope‘s stately ebb and flow, sometimes hazy and psychedelic, sometimes pulsating and electro-industrial.
Is it possible that Cut Copy has played things a little too cool? On tracks like “Take Me Over” and “Hanging on to Every Heartbeat,” Cut Copy sounds like latecomers to the chillwave scene, doing little to differentiate their misty-eyed electronica from the sort made popular by Neon Indian, Toro Y Moi, and Caribou. It’s not a bad fit for them per se, but it will surely sound as dated in two years as the electro-house stuff does today. Zonoscope‘s extensive flirtation with last year’s vogue is the most obvious sense in which Cut Copy fails to establish a sonic identity of their own. It does, however, contain hints of the more distinctive act that could emerge on records to come, as when harmonies reminiscent of the Beatles blossom out of “Where I’m Going,” or when “Alisa” is ruptured by stabs of noise-rock guitar. Too often, though, Zonoscope‘s best moments are just that: moments, serving to redeem far less interesting tracks.
Still, Zonoscope shows every sign of being a transitional record, and as such, the most significant test of its merits won’t be its ability to generate singles as exhilarating as “Hearts on Fire,” but rather the possibilities it opens up for the band’s future. Judged by the music here, which often sounds self-consciously mature in comparison to the band’s previous work, Cut Copy understands that they’re at a crossroads. And while one’s inclination is to praise a young band for choosing innovation over pastiche, for the time being, Cut Copy doesn’t possess a strong enough sense of who they are as artists to deliver on their ambitions. Zonoscope‘s decadent closer, “Sun God,” makes that point so clearly that it almost comes off as a concession. Ending the album with 15 minutes of blissed-out body music is the type of move that smacks of self-conscious experimentation, but in terms of its content, “Sun God” is rave-by-rote. It may also be the song that’s closest in spirit to In Ghost Colours‘s embrace of loud, glittery meaninglessness. Indie music has always welcomed artists who want to make statements, but sometimes a band simply hasn’t got much to say. And in those cases, it’s probably best that we all just shut up and feel the beat.