ALBUM REVIEW: Hot Chip return refreshed and invigorated on ‘A Bath Full of Ecstasy’

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Dance pop is defined by its surface pleasures. At its best, it dispenses with the need to think, encouraging the listener to give into and get lost in its simple, primal power. Whether that is accomplished through fresh new sounds or the power of the past is secondary to the way it feels – when it works, it just works, and no amount of details matter.

The genre’s greatest, longest lasting acts seem to intuitively understand and exploit the space between the two poles, mixing and matching to create new colors. Almost two decades and six albums into their career, the reliable purveyors of indie dance-pop in Hot Chip do this better than most. While an extremely strong live act (where the band benefits from their ability to stretch out its strongest material), the band’s early albums can be uneven affairs, mixing stone-cold killer indie dance singles like “Over and Over,” “Ready for the Floor,” and “Shake a Fist” with mid-tempo, R&B-indebted ballads and enjoyable, but forgettable, songs somewhere between the two.

2012’s In Our Heads and 2015’s Why Make Sense? mined the same territory but displayed a better sense of consistency; now, after a four-year hiatus spent working on solo projects or with other groups, the members of Hot Chip return refreshed and reinvigorated with their seventh album, A Bath Full of Ecstasy (out June 21 via Domino) – their loosest, most exuberant work yet.

Hot Chip is still comprised of vocalists/multi-instrumentalists Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard, along with Owen Clarke, Felix Martin, and LCD Soundsystem touring member Al Doyle, but the band sounds refocused on A Bath Full of Ecstasy. It’s a soft focus, however, where everything feels pillowy and light, from textures to emotional sentiment. This is a case where the album title truly tells the story of what’s contained within – music immersed in warmth and a kind of blurry, impressionistic glow.

Whether this was accomplished by taking time to recharge or exploring new ways of working is almost beside the point – after all, when music feels this good, why analyze it? But it bears acknowledging that the group enlisted outside producers for the very first time, including French studio wizard Philippe Zdar (of Cassius and Phoenix fame), as well as Rodaidh McDonald, who has worked with the xx, David Byrne, Sampha, and more. New collaborations with seasoned pros and a fresh approach clearly make a difference, combining with what the band deemed a “more adventurous” songwriting style to form Hot Chip’s most euphoric and ebullient material yet.

What stands out most about A Bath Full of Ecstasy is its keen acknowledgment of the past – more than any prior release, it sounds like drug-addled memories of dance floors gone by, plus the feelings dredged up by the intersection of the two. It’s nostalgic but present, too, and that tension gives the music ample power.

The album is always moving even when it slows down, blurring when you move your head a little too quickly. “Melody of Love” and “Spell” are made of bright, neon lights and plastic (but somehow warm) synth textures; a sample and piano stabs, respectively, cut through and give both songs some clarity. “Echo” contrasts spare musical space with Balearic rhythms, while “Positive” is pure cotton candy, stringy and light and sugar high. First single “Hungry Child” is the band’s latest classic track, offsetting pads and house-y piano riffs with a thick synth bass and a garage beat. It’s nocturnal and distant, but uplifting in that profound, unquantifiable way that so much important house and garage is.

The slower tunes feel consistently natural for the first time in the band’s recorded career. “Bath Full of Ecstasy” is lower energy but not a slow burn, mixing auto-tuned and pitch-shifted vocals that stretch like rubber bands with twinkly synths and a guitar solo cribbed in sound and emotional heft from The War on Drugs’ ‘80s-indebted playbook. “Why Does My Mind” is pure psych pop by way of downtempo Cut Copy, offering plenty of backwards studio sounds and a lazy, floating feeling, like sitting on a cloud. In fact, Cut Copy’s Free Your Mind is a close sonic and emotional cousin – deeply nostalgic sounds and textures remembered secondhand from dance music past.

“Clear Blue Skies” and “No God” close the album on an especially strong note. The former is a mix of Arthur Russell vocal fragility and Suicide’s cheap, skittery analog drum machine sounds; there’s a glockenspiel straight out of “Dream Baby Dream” and even a synthesized, motorik-driven krautrock jam of an outro. “No God” is electro-gospel trapped in an underwater air bubble – its house-y piano stabs, beautiful synth riffs, and percussive outro uplift without exhausting. Everything seems to glow and flow naturally – it’s a smile in song form.

Brevity serves A Bath Full of Ecstasy well – while not the shortest in the catalog, it has the least songs of any Hot Chip full-length. As a result, it meanders less and gives more in its allotted run time. It’s a focused statement from a strengthened, revitalized band who know how to maximize each other’s strengths. By looking outside their comfort zone, Hot Chip have delivered perhaps their best full-length yet.

Words by Andrew Ledford
Photos by Stephanie Varela Rheingold