When Walter Benjamin composed his landmark Theses on the Philosophy of History, the intended audience for his critiques of the ills of conventional historicism were historians, naturally, and politicians. But the alternative historical consciousness that he proposes could also have great resonance for artists. Over and against the weakness of objective history, Benjamin makes the case for repeating the past not as it really was, but as it never was, engaging with the possibilities of the past that never got a chance for expression.
This particular kind of historical relation, which doesn’t copy or imitate but deeply engages with and transforms the past, is often evident in accomplished art, including in the eponymous debut from Brooklyn’s Hercules & Love Affair. The album allows its deep knowledge of the disco tradition to grow into something new, never sounding over-studied or content with slavish imitation. Together with Kelly Polar’s album now out on Morgan Geist’s Environ Records, Hercules & Love Affair indexes a turning point in the re-emergence of disco as a living musical genre.
In the past several years, the outer regions of disco have been fair game for indie producers, deejays and dance-centered experimentalists: A whole slew of compilations attests to the re-invigorated interest in non-Village People-disco, which has been labeled leftfield disco, out-disco, disco not disco, mutant disco, and so on. This sort of outsider confrontation has certainly yielded a rich field of forward-thinking tracks, largely in New York and the U.K., but it has just as often been functioned like a wallflower on the dance floor, content to remain on the periphery.
In contrast, Hercules & Love Affair goes right for disco’s throbbing, flamboyant jugular. It’s a full-on banner wave for late-’70s/early-’80s New York loft disco, a musical phenomenon as vibrant and influential as any other in the city but until recently perhaps never granted the wide acceptance of jazz, punk, rock and hip-hop. Of all of this scene’s predecessors, the spirit of disco pioneer Arthur Russell and his percolating, idiosyncratic production can be most palpably felt throughout.
Antony of Antony and the Johnsons lends his wild and warbly falsetto to a number of the tracks, often pronouncing lyrics whose faux-naif enthusiasm (“As a child I knew the stars could only get brighter”) recall Russell’s school-day mythemes (“Treehouse”, “Let’s Go Swimming”). The record’s greatest strength is that it never panders to disco’s lowest common denominator or pulls any cheap moves, which is extremely easy when you’re aiming to produce a joyous, exuberant sonic workout.
Hercules & Love Affair is a testament to the great foresight and control is required in a disco producer to keep the track from lunging into an abyss of low-blow kitsch, and to be able to stimulate the ears and feet at the same time.