Typically the word “pastiche” doesn’t imply an act of tribute so much as an accusation that a work is unoriginal. But with apologies to music critic and Retromania author Simon Reynolds, there are times when a pastiche cannot only live up to its source material, but also pick up the baton and branch off in new but still faithful directions. Take British cyber-soul singer Jamie Lidell, who after about a half-dozen albums is just finally now getting around to releasing a self-titled disc. Jamie Lidell is positively drenched in knowingly dated flourishes, vaguely familiar drum patterns, and synthesizer settings held together by rubber bands. But as Reynolds rightly points out, any of those elements have more or less emerged as the normative factor in pop today. What sets Lidell apart from, say, the many pleasant but posturing Justin Timberlakes out there is that Lidell is clearly conversant in the forms others exploit for decorative effects. And with his latest album, Lidell proves himself downright fluent.
It often seems like Lidell is prepared to leave you in the dust if you’re not up to snuff on your half-forgotten R&B gems from decades past. The opening of “Big Love” at first blush reminded me of Janet Jackson’s “The Pleasure Principle,” but after a few more listens, revealed itself to be a pitch-perfect approximation of Solar Records’ late-‘80s jams, specifically Calloway’s “I Wanna Be Rich.” Which is the absolute perfect touch—to interpolate not the Minneapolis sound itself, but rather what would’ve been in the late ‘80s taken to be an obvious rip on that sound. It’s sort of like Lidell is so often eerily attuned to his own indebtedness that he aligns himself with the pretenders. (Why else open the album with the acknowledgement that “I’m Selfish”?)
If that’s the case, though, he cuts himself entirely too little scratch, because each song here offers at the very least a surfeit of authentic retro earworms: the midtempo accusation “Don’t You Love Me” melds an impossibly deep piano line with spooky overtones; “So Cold” is space-trippy on the order of post-Westbound-era Funkadelic; and “You Naked” wobbles slinkily around its root key like an auto-asphyxiating DX7. As with his previous albums, Lidell’s songs pair romantic entanglements or disengagements (“You used to be so cool, but now you’re so cold” runs one highly typical couplet) with polygamous grooves, sometimes accompanied by his mouth-generated percussive latticework, always delivered via his high, reedy vocals, which themselves could pass for Charlie Wilson or Sugarfoot.
But you get the sense Lidell derives much of the romantic tension from how much more invested he is in varied musical nostalgia. The man’s eros emanates from post-electro, and damned if he doesn’t want us to all see him making babies with it. And some of the hybrids that emerge do enough to nudge the album beyond imitation, like the nasty grime-infused “What a Shame” or “why_ya_why,” a dirge that sounds approximately like what the little devil sitting on Tom Waits’s shoulder might play after dropping molly at Mardi Gras. The album-closing “In Your Mind” blossoms from a cagey hard-bop shuffle into a full-blown tribute to post-“Rockit” Herbie Hancock (e.g. “Beat Wise”). In other words, it’s a loving replication of the precise moment most of Hancock’s would-be biographers would tag as his sellout nadir. I mean, you really got to love a man who’s so immersed in the genre that he pays tribute to some of its most denigrated forms. On his tight self-titled opus, Lidell insists on redeeming that which he would say doesn’t need saving in the first place.