On paper, electronic/dance music shouldn't elicit any major emotional responses. They are styles intended to shut off synapses. You're supposed to "lose yourself to dance," as Pharrell commands. You get swept up in a tide of movement. Feet tap; heads nod, hips swing and thoughts disappear under the reflective, multi-colored lights of the dancefloor. Theoretically electronic/dance music focuses on the body and couldn’t give a damn about the brain.
Of course none of those theories are true. Since the earliest days of popular dance music, people like Donna Summer have confronted unwieldy emotions in their songs. Despite being robots, electronic pioneers Kraftwerk had to reckon with lust and disaffection. Just this past year Caribou mastermind Dan Snaith issued Our Love, one of the most heartfelt records of the decade. "You’re the only thing I think about," he sang on "Can't Do Without You." That's the sort of admission you'd expect in an emo-leaning acoustic track, not a clapping psych-groove.
I mention Our Love because it's perhaps the best musical analogy to what Jamie xx aims for on his impeccably beautiful, undeniably emotional debut In Colour. The cover is a subtle nod to his singles from the past few years, but it also signals the kaleidoscopic range of feelings that will hit you once you press play. In the span of a minute it's possible to sob to the shadowy bleeping of "Stranger in a Room" and then shudder in fear at "Hold Tight"'s industrial wasteland synths. Hearing them on a night-drive down abandoned metropolitan avenues is the type of thing that will haunt your dreams.
The musical versatility of In Colour is magnificent. I've glided across a wet kitchen floor at 1am on a rainy Sunday morning to the giddy dancehall of "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)." The finger snaps are so on point, the calypso flavored drums so bright sounding and Young Thug's squealing so goofy that it is impossible not to rock to the infectious track. The hollered hook of "I know there’s gonna be good times," has the insistency of Daft Punk’s "One More Time." From the muted side, the timid vocal stutters and harp plucks of "Sleep Sound" are perfect for soundtracking a slow trek through a Sun-covered forest. Romy Madley Croft collabo "Seesaw," one of three In Colour songs to feature Jamie xx's xx bandmates, will gently waft out of plenty of couples’ bedrooms before summer ends. Madley Croft's whispers over the song’s scattered programming make hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Her echoing voice is that tantalizing.
This is someone who got started with the xx though, so those high cresting waves of emotion have to crash at some point. And they do during centerpiece "Loud Places," which also pairs xx with Madley Croft. She sings "you're in ecstasy without me, when you come down I won't be around," after an army of voices singing "I feel music in your eyes, I have never reached such heights," disappears. The song’s central conceit of finding a person in a loud place to share quietude with is something Madley Croft commits to. So you hear the desperation in her voice when she realizes that’s not what a former love wants anymore. They want to go to new places with someone new. Without being hyperbolic, the way Jamie xx contrasts this is genius. Her exhalations come over brittle ringing piano keys while her former flame’s new-found club hopping is secured by stinging guitar lines and colossal drum machine strikes. Each one is a more stunning blow to the heart than the last. Even when she gets off that aforementioned missive you sense it's from a place of profound defeat.
"Loud Places" is worth dedicating an entire paragraph to, but the same could be said for any of In Colour's 11 tracks because there isn't a lackluster effort among the bunch. "Gosh"'s mangled "oh my gosh" vocals and 2-step garage work are just what you want out of an opener: insistent, palpitating and scene-setting, the type of song to kickstart festival sets with. "Hold Tight," perhaps the "slightest" of the songs, is an ideal buffer between the emotional onslaughts of "Stranger in a Room" and "Loud Places." The piano droplets of penultimate number "The Rest is Noise" are reflective without overthinking things. Chain rattling closer "Girl" has such an immediate cut-off that you’re forced into hitting repeat just to confirm your file isn’t corrupted. I imagine Jamie xx filled up several wastebaskets with rejected track lists before settling on this inscrutable sequencing. There isn’t a single hair out of place.
Which is a marvel when you consider how messy the ideas are that Jamie xx is dealing with. Love, loss, longing, ecstasy, joy, happiness, regret, fear and betrayal aren't easy to convey, especially when you're mostly limited to instrumentals. Jamie xx manages the feat though. He’s 26 but the near-perfect In Colour belies his age. This is the kind of album that could only be made by someone with eons of experience. An individual who has been through ringer. A person who is well aware that no form of music is better for such wide-ranging expressionism.