Calvin Harris Alternates Infectious Singles with Tedious Filler
Calvin Harris--18 Months--Fly Eye, Columbia--3 STARS
Selling out may be the best thing that has ever happened to Calvin Harris. A few years ago, Harris was an obscure DJ toiling away in Scotland at experimental synthpop and electroclash. His switch to more traditional pop sounds on 2008’s “Ready for the Weekend” brought him enormous commercial success and international popularity. Now, Harris has found a formula that not only sells records, but is pristinely produced and infectiously fun. While “18 Months” is at times weighed down by experimental electronica that ties him back to his earlier work, it salvaged by the addictive pop singles that first brought Harris into public view.
Harris has always been known for creating hooks, and on “18 Months” he’s catchier than ever. “We Found Love,” the fourth track and an early single from the album, has become an international hit for that reason. The song starts with a jittery, syncopated keyboard riff and slowly builds as layers of drums and synthesizers are added on. At the climax, the song explodes with energy. Here, his timing is flawless and he creates a perfect backdrop for Rihanna’s voice to soar over.
Another one of Harris’s great strengths is reserve: his beats bounce rather than thunder, setting him apart from many other overzealous dance music producers. In “Let’s Go,” Harris quietly builds up a punchy, uncluttered beat that doesn’t overwhelm after the drop, but rather pulls back so that it has time to build up all over again. On “Bounce,” Harris matches the timbre of Kelis’s breathy voice with a bubbly synth. The build up at the end of the song is one of the most fun moments on the album, as Harris alternates a whining electric noise with silence.
“18 Months” also displays Harris’s more experimental side, with mixed results. In the brief opener, “Green Valley,” Harris throws together layers of swirling synthesizers, vocal samples, and a slap bass. While most of the songs on the album push you to the dance floor, “Green Valley” skillfully rocks you to sleep with sonic waves that swing back and forth.
However, most of his forays into obtuse electronica fall flat. Their lack of development or innovation make it seem that they are simply filler between his top chart singles. “Mansion” features the same irritating beat for two minutes and lacks the satisfying drop that is so essential to Harris’s singles. There is a slight build at the end, led by a bouncy synthetic bass, but the song promptly ends, making for a disappointing finish. “Awooga” is similar, at once empty and overwhelming. Its shiny riff is repeated over and over and then replaced by simulated laser-like shots. Because it is sandwiched between “Let’s Go” and the popping “Thinking About You,” “Awooga” feels especially weak.
Harris also struggles when he tries to force his production technique onto styles of music that aren’t receptive to his method of mixing. “Sweet Nothing,” which was co-written and performed by indie darling Florence Welch, does not reflect the capabilities of either talented collaborator. Welch’s strong vocals are lost in unnecessary vocal effects, and the song, which starts off strong, ends up sounding like a bad club remix of a Florence and the Machine song.
However, Harris succeeds wildly in his more formulaic pop singles. On “18 Months,” Harris may be sacrificing his artistic integrity, but his fans across the world don’t seem to mind too much. What matters is that songs like “Bounce” and “Let’s Go” seem to bore holes inside the brain and nest there, which you don’t realize until your friends tell you to shut up and you didn’t even realize you were singing anything.