Album Review: Calvin Harris' 'Motion' Plays It Safe With Radio-Ready Cuts and It-Girl Guest Stars
Somewhere along the line, "EDM" became a dirty word. What began as an umbrella term for the new wave of electronic dance music now carries the weight of the genre's oft-criticized commercialization. If a dance track features a pop vocalist singing a melodic hook, it's almost automatically labeled as EDM -- and then, often, mocked.
Calvin Harris is widely and justifiably considered the face of this movement. During the past decade, the Scottish DJ-producer, 30, has had nine Billboard Hot 100 hits, more than any other DJ aside from David Guetta, with whom he's tied. His singles tend to follow a tried-and-true pop song structure, and often feature stars like Rihanna and Ellie Goulding. The approach, while unabashedly commercial, has been a gravy train: Forbes estimates Harris earned $66 million in 2013, making him the highest paid DJ in the world. So it's no surprise that his fourth album, Motion, is packed with all-too-predictable crowd-pleasers. But it also has a few surprises -- pitches to dance music purists, perhaps -- that suggest he's a more dynamic producer than he lets on, one with a true appreciation of dance music's purer forms.
Take "Slow Acid," a sexy spin on 1990s acid house that will please electronic music's old guard. Dark, patient and industrial, the track is leaps away from his signature club anthems, featuring some unexpected twists: Three minutes in, for example, Harris distorts the synthesizer bass into a frenzied buzz that sounds like the spring of a door stopper, before dipping back into the song's original groove. There's also the bombastic "Overdrive," which features Turkish producer Ummet Ozcan, and "Burnin'," a joint effort with Dutch producer R3hab. The latter takes a swing at a style of house music sometimes called dirty dutch, with a drop built around staccato synths and drum kicks that spit double- and triple-time over the bass. More importantly, it isn't watered down with the mawkish vocals and formulaic choruses of his signature singles. Much like "Mansion," an instrumental gem from his last album, 18 Months, it demonstrates that Harris is capable of functioning outside of pop's lane.
Unfortunately, moments like these are the exception on Motion. The album is, by and large, low-hanging fruit, leaning more on anthemic choruses than groundbreaking beatwork. It's carried by an all-star lineup of "it" girls including Haim ("Pray to God"), Goulding ("Outside"), Tinashe ("Dollar Signs") and Gwen Stefani ("Together") singing on play-it-safe, radio-ready cuts filled with the expected drops and shiny synth hooks. Harris switches things up slightly by featuring his own vocals on the album's best-known single, "Summer"; otherwise, however, the track sticks to his likable, but typical, formula. Harris may have helped popularize the current dance-pop sound, but now that the rest of the industry has caught up, it has become ubiquitous to the point of uniformity. By staying within the safest corners of both pop and dance, he fails to push the boundaries of either genre.
Therein lies the frustrating aspect of Motion. While it's hard to blame Harris for sticking with the sound that has made him rich, it would be less disappointing if he didn't show signs of greater creative potential. The album's most arresting moments are stuck in the shadows, mere teasers for an artist the listener knows exists, but is intentionally sidelined.