It’s difficult to explain just why, exactly, Sasu Ripatti’s fourth album as Luomo, Convivial, doesn’t quite stand among his finest work. Of course, it’s not an album that will revolutionize the way that we think about dance music like 2000’s majestic, definitional Vocalcity, but neither is it a misstep like 2006’s rather treacly Paper Tigers. To understand why, you need a sense of what Luomo, as a project, has always been about: specifically, simply, brilliantly recontextualizing the vaguely postmodern cut-up vocals of millennial glitch-house into lushly gliding dub techno. To understate, the results have typically tilted toward the chill. The edges on this record are supposed to be completely smoothed over, so it feels somewhat churlish to criticize it as safe. But it is safe, and given how revolutionary Luomo used to be, that’s a problem.
Probably the thing that has changed the most about Ripatti’s approach to the Luomo project over the years is his attitude toward vocal collaboration. Certainly his general sonic palette, especially the woozy oscillating basslines and tidally momentous synths, hasn’t much shifted. Where the best of his early material leveraged vocal anonymity into universality, Convivial, as its title implies, finds Ripatti playing host to some name brands, including Berlin luminaries Sascha Ring (perhaps better known as Apparat) and Cassy, as well as Scissor Sister Jake Shears. The resolute personhood of the vocalists makes these songs a little easier to pin down than might be expected. Shears’s turn on this woozy stage will probably be a particular sticking point for longtime fans: “If I Can’t” evokes peak-era Prince extremely effectively, in a way that seems out of place as much as the rubber-band bassline that kicks in toward the end seems to sum up Luomo’s most basic charms.
Given that many seem to agree that Luomo’s first album is one of the finest of any genre of the last decade, to say that large stretches of Convivial sound like slightly glossed-up versions of Vocalcity‘s particularly endless grooves might not seem especially critical. But that record—and to a slightly lesser extent, its 2003 follow up The Present Lover—worked so well because their ideas were new. And while Convivial sometimes sounds urgent (as on album standouts like the soaring, gothic “Love You All” and the bright and twitchy “Gets Along Fine”), virtually nothing about it sounds truly fresh. The difference between sticking to a sweet spot and running in place is sometimes vanishingly small.