Reviving the past is a mixed business. On one hand, two of this year’s best albums, Todd Terje’s It’s Album Time and Chromeo’s White Women, have proven that you can amass a passionate cult audience (and sell albums to boot) by designing elaborate tributes to bygone dance styles. DJ/producer Andy Butler’s Hercules and Love Affair, which draws inspiration mainly from ’80s and ’90s house, contains some of Terje’s sense of humor and Chromeo’s sonic muscularity, but Butler’s music also shares the gay theatricality of RuPaul, who’s made his own cottage industry out of milking a decades-old persona. And as the recent controversy around Ru’s casual, outmoded use of the word “tranny” as a term of endearment attests, bringing back the past can also mean bringing back old battle wounds of marginalization.
Grappling with that fraught history and how we move on is the explicit aim of Hercules and Love Affair’s third album, The Feast of the Broken Heart. To wit, drag performer Rouge Mary takes over the diva slot previously occupied by Antony Hegarty on the group’s debut. The album’s highlight, “5:43 to Freedom,” which boldly suggests that one will be liberated by track’s end, begins with a sample from John Waters’s Mondo Trasho of two women trading slurs about an ambiguously gendered person (“Is that a boy or a girl? No, it’s a hippie…a communist”) before Mary breaks in to tell us that she won’t be changing for anyone, and neither should you: “Gotta be yourself/Like there ain’t nobody.”
This theme of self-empowerment pervades The Feast of the Broken Heart, from the feminist anthem “My Offence” (“I’ve come too far from the dead/I was told to be for you to make a bitch out of me,” sings Krystle Warren) to the downright New Age closer “The Key,” which advises us to “give in to love.” The sentiment cleverly squares with the acid house Butler so clearly loves, the teachings of Oprah, and the gay rights movement itself, which has always sought to encompass expanding sexual identities based on the belief that all of its members deserve the protections and ability to prosper that everyone else has. It’s here that Hercules and Love Affair most successfully blurs the lines between eras and political sects, arguing instead for a kind of timeless, universal harmony.
The music is more obviously rooted in the past. Butler, who grew up in Denver on industrial music before gravitating toward house and disco, likes his beats snappy and propulsive. Luckily, his wry sensibility lightens what could have made this, like Blue Songs, too mannered a retro enterprise. Small comic touches abound: the high-pitched title chant on “Hercules Theme 2014,” which sounds like it was ripped from a Saturday-morning cartoon; the grunts and whistles on “My Offence,” which let you know that Butler knows this is silly fun without making it all a joke. There’s also a sonic clarity to the production that you won’t find on any vintage dance record, even if it lacks the meticulous detail of Terje’s It’s Album Time. The better tracks subtly stretch the boundaries of what’s become the distinctive Hercules sound, especially a gorgeous distorted guitar line on “The Key” and a hi-hat and synth on “Liberty,” which sounds like it could even be the backing beat of a drill rap song. After all, what’s the point of revivalism if you can’t play loose with it?
Still, Butler’s template can grow wearing after too long a listen. There’s only one downtempo offering here, and some details, like high-pitched chanting and robotic voices, repeat throughout the album to diminishing returns. John Grant’s voice, which is moving on “I Try to Talk to You,” about his experiences with HIV, gets mushy and melodramatic on “Liberty.” And while Butler has for the most part an uncanny ability to match singer to material, his own personal lyrical touch is left slightly remote (he co-wrote many of the songs with his collaborators). Instead, he’s a curator par excellence who’s once again assembled an aggressive and varied collection of voices who together form an earnest plea to choose compassion over division. That’s rare enough in 2014 or any other year.