Album Review: David Guetta's All-Star 'Listen' Makes a Beeline for the Pop Charts

When David Guetta hit the studio to record Listen, his first album in three years, the trailblazing French EDM producer worked backwards. Instead of starting with the beats -- his standard approach over his three-decade DJ career -- he began with vocals and live instruments, such as piano and guitar, and produced around them. The result is an emotional album of radio-friendly hits featuring star vocalists (Nicki Minaj, Sia) and full-bodied choruses that, when heard together, feel like a moment of reflection from his view at the top. 

The album has been billed as Guetta’s attempt at reinvention, but aside from the analog approach, it doesn’t feel like wholly new territory. The 47-year-old artist is widely credited for leading EDM’s mainstream crossover with his late 2000’s LPs Pop Life and One Love, and this feels like his most pop-centric album yet. The recipe might be different, but the ingredients are largely the same. 

Take, for example, “Listen,” a lullaby-like track featuring John Legend that starts slow before swelling into a roaring chorus of synths and big bass. The structure is classic Guetta, and most of the album’s songs ("Lovers on the Sun," “Bang my Head”) follow the same formula. But after a while, it begins to feel like he's leaning too hard on a tried-and-true template. 

The album does offer a refreshingly intimate look at his songwriting style and state of mind, which, after a divorce from his wife of 20 years, seems contemplative. Through a couple of surprise ballads, such as “Goodbye Friend” with The Script and “The Whisperer” with Sia, he talks about hard ends and new beginnings, loneliness, and, of course, heartache. There’s plenty of top 40 potential in “Hey Mama,” a bombastic island-flavored jam featuring Nicki Minaj and Afrojack, and “No Money No Love” featuring Elliphant and Ms. Dynamite, which mashes house music with reggae. The album’s opener, “Dangerous” featuring Sam Martin, combines flirty vocals, orchestral strings and a chorus backed by retro funk guitar a la Chromeo or Daft Punk. It’s a song he could have written five years ago, but it’s fit for 2014. 

The question isn’t whether the album is enjoyable or true to form (it’s both), but rather if it advances a trend Guetta almost single-handedly sparked with his Black Eyed Peas smash, “I Gotta Feeling.” That’s where Listen falls short. Despite its all-but-guaranteed success, it may not bring Guetta anywhere he hasn’t already been over the past 30 years. Instead, it shines a light on what he does perhaps better than anyone in EDM: write songs that feel poignantly, unequivocally now.

 


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