No other artist capitalized on the EDM boom as efficiently as Calvin Harris. Once a scrawny, geeky-looking bedroom producer who burst onto the scene with a post-modern dance-pop sound that drew comparisons with LCD Soundsystem and Daft Punk, the Scotsman then transformed himself into a buffed-up, Calvin Klein-modeling superstar DJ renowned for dating Taylor Swift and blasting out hopelessly generic bangers at Vegas superclubs.
It’s a transition which no doubt boosted his bank balance beyond his wildest dreams – he’s topped Forbes‘ DJ Rich List for the last three years with an estimated net worth of $190m – but it’s one which also appeared to render him creatively bankrupt.
However, after two albums’ worth of bro-tastic drops, four to the floor beats and hands in the air synths so basic he made David Guetta look like a boundary-pushing musical genius, the 33-year-old has finally decided to switch things up a little with a fifth album specifically designed to make you feel ‘f****** incredible.’
As its title suggests, Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 sees Harris delve into the world of chunky basslines and head-bopping beats over ten tracks that are thankfully more vintage soul all-nighter than millennial frat party.
Combining Frank Ocean’s effortlessly smooth tones with quirky pitch-shifted vocals and warm analog synths, the summery opener “Slide” is a pretty much flawless introduction to Harris’ new sound.
There’s a similar effortlessness to “Cash Out” – which may implore listeners to party like it’s 1980 but whose bubbling production has more in common with the lowrider-bouncing G-funk of the mid-90s. While the joyous vocals of 2017 hero Ariana Grande and slinky disco leanings of “Heatstroke” continue the feel-good vibes, too.
But having assembled such an impressive and extensive list of star names (an astonishing 21 different guests are credited here), it’s a little disappointing that Harris soon runs out of ideas to best utilize them. Indeed, everyone from soulmen John Legend and Khalid to rappers Snoop Dogg, Travis Scott and Future are all saddled with the same old-school production, rendering the middle section of Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 virtually indistinguishable. And although Nicki Minaj delivers a typically exuberant melodies and rhymes combo, it’s wasted on the jarring AutoTuned dancehall of “Skrt On Me.”
The record briefly comes alive again with “Feels,” a ska-tinged collaboration with Katy Perry, Big Sean and Pharrell Williams so uplifting it almost makes the latter’s “Happy” sound like a Leonard Cohen-esque dirge. And the slinky synth-R&B of closer “Hard to Love,” a showcase for relative unknown Jessie Reyez which recalls her namesake Ware, wraps things up on a highly sophisticated note.
Ultimately, Harris appears to have simply swapped one formula for another, and if there’s to be a Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 2 he will need to discover at least a few new tricks. But after years of banishing everything that once made him such an interesting pop star to the sidelines, there are encouraging signs here that the Harris of old hasn’t been entirely lost for good.