Dance music is arguably going through the throes of some minor existential crisis, having started life as an illicit and genuinely underground sensation that now finds itself lumbered with the anodyne effect that mainstream acceptance inevitably has.
The question that some DJs seem to be asking themselves between a hectic schedule of ministering to thousands from dripping warehouses to balearic beach sides is which way they should turn next: embrace hedonism as an end in itself, or shoot for something loftier and more ambitious.
Records from George Fitzgerald, Pearson Sound and Four Tet might be taken as recent symptoms of this thirst for new ground, all perennial party starters now aiming for something more cerebral on record. For all the successes of these records, there’s yet to be that moment of crystallisation, that fork in the road that people might look back on as the bridging of two worlds that previously seemed irreconcilable. It's with a certain degree of predictability that Jamie xx's long awaited debut In Colours is surely destined to be that immersive and instantly resonant record; in his day job as one third of The xx he shapes those morose, introspective textures, whilst by night he incites mass elation as one of the most in demand disc selectors.
That a Jamie xx solo album even exists says a lot in itself. On stage with The xx, he hangs around at the back, their sullen and immaculately coiffeured muse, solely concerning himself with crafting spectral soundscapes from fragments of electronic music. For him to step out on his own suggests that he's really got something to say; his regrettably concise back catalogue proving that he isn't one to fill time with dead noise just for the sake of it. In fact, after his collaboration with the late Gil Scott Heron (I'm New Here) and his debut double A-side of "Far Nearer"/"Beat For" in 2011, Jamie was still adamant that an album wasn't being planned. In Colour is apparently the result of a new found confidence, as Jamie slowly realised through his irregular singles, lauded remixes and occasional production spots that his alchemy of elements of garage, dancehall, drum and bass, house and techno is more than worthy of a full-length.
The record grabs at a load of these threads, from the murky garage of "Gosh" to the delicate syncopated beats of "SeeSaw" and the reluctant techno pulse of "The Rest Is Noise". This is far from a vaudevillian pastiche, though; each thread is refracted through his distinctive prism, fanning out into beams of sombre, buoyant, mesmeric dance music. The cover art, designed by Jamie himself, seems an intentional reflection of this. Where the xx’s covers are fittingly monochrome, In Colour’s is an entire spectrum of vibrant shades, just as the record itself hurries through vivid takes on dancefloor melancholia and Jamie’s idiosyncratic view of UK dance music.
Nothing could be more indicative of the fact that Jamie has found his own range of bright, startling electronic music than the appearances from bandmates Oliver Sim and Romy, which feel like welcome shadows cast across Jamie's swelling arrangements, taking maudlin themes like lovelorn desperation ("Loud Places") and islation ("Stranger In A Room") and inverting them into oddly hopeful sounding tracks. In fact, it’s a record that deals in catharsis of all kinds; from the sublime contrast of "Loud Places"' navel gazing euphoria to the swaggering rude-boi attitude of "Gosh" and the joyous, bouncing refrain of "I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)", In Colour is a record that could soundtrack break ups, facilitate unions, and prompt both soul searching and sweaty debauchery.
That it all forms a cohesive whole, tied together by Jamie's wrong-footing, left-field beats and enthusiasm for UK dance music is best illustrated by "Sleep Sound" and "Girl", two tracks that we’ve been hammering for the best part of the year that here melt seamlessly into his hushed grooves. In particular, the woozy house of "Sleep Sound" always seemed to tantalisingly promise to stretch out into a climax that never came. Here, we finally get it in its proper context, as it stumbles via a brief choral refrain into the pneumatic, reedy beat of "SeeSaw" that has all the climactic urgency that "Sleep Sound" hinted at, albeit set against Romy’s desolate vocals. It sounds so instantly like Four Tet’s subtle and precise oeuvre that it comes as no surprise to find that he did actually produce it (early versions of the track even crediting him as a collaborator).
The wide lens, revolving frames of "The Rest Is Noise", meanwhile, slip effortlessly from casual audience chatter into the stark declaration that introduces "Girl"; “you’re the most beautiful girl in Hackney, y’ano?” comes the opening gambit from an iron-voiced Casanova of East London. From there on out it’s the same "Girl" that’s been spun and respun for the past year; all pitch shifted vocals, that wandering thud of a bass-line and kaleidoscopic synths that lend it the feel of stumbling around a barely legal Dalston dive in the morning's small hours. Now, though, it sounds as triumphant as it does disorientating, bookmarking a collection of songs that deserve one final release.
The brightest moments aren't just those that we've already heard, though. "Obvs" is the logical conclusion of Jamie's longstanding fascination with steel drums, the usual joy of Caribbean music subverted by a kerb-crawling bass line and a snatch of vocals that somehow manages to be at once celestial and gloomy. Meanwhile, "Hold Tight" seems to inhabit its own genreless realm, buoyed by a metallic clang and synths that flicker like a blinding strobe beneath a shuffling beat. The first time you listen to it, it's a four minute floor filler; by the third or fourth, it seems a sullen reflection. In truth, two weeks later you'll still be struggling to split the difference, and it's partly that duality, schizophrenia even, that makes In Colour so special.
This isn’t dewy eyed nostalgia all weighed down with rose tinted reverence, though: he makes a respectful nod to the past by rifling through jungle and garage and so on, but each track feels like a poignant and yet propulsive reflection of Jamie’s personality and experiences. It’s almost enough to make you want to sell all your earthly possessions, move to east London and take up skateboarding just to encounter some of the wasted romance and wide eyed club sub cultures that In Colour is so clearly steeped in. He may have spent his years patiently absorbing the minute details of UK dance music, but by now he feels like one of its driving forces: a voyeur-cum-auteur who with In Colour will surely come to define so many of those subcultures that he was inspired by himself.