Shortly after Joker dropped the memorable “Purple City” split seven-inch with Ginz in 2009, the Guardian proclaimed the then 23-year-old London producer the “next big thing in UK dance music.” It was understandable despite his sparse catalog of releases. After all, a lot of us momentarily lost our shit over the split’s massive bass and distorted Ennio Morricone synth melodies. Joker told The Guardian then that he was interested in making music for headphones and “people who don’t have decks,“ calling it “purple.”
Since then Joker’s stock has continued to rise off only a few, officially released cuts. The morsels he did hand out were driven off a love for 16-bit Sega Genesis soundtracks and American Y2K R&B, smothering each track in heavy, wobbling slabs of bass backed by simple kicks and meek clinking drums. Joker’s debut full-length The Vision continues to build similar soundscapes. “Tron” — an instrumental we first heard over a year ago– finds a middle ground between Dr. Dre G-funk melodies and Joker’s own knack for rattling, hyperactive mid-tempo wobbling beats. “The Magic Causeway” is its sibling straight out of a Chronic 2001 wet-dream, with laid-back wheezing keys before mellowing into futuristic music for an elevator occupied by Sonic the Hedgehog and Zangief.
While Joker doesn’t stray far from his sound on The Vision, it is clear that he is no longer interested in being a mysterious weirdo who simply makes “headphone music.” Instead of sticking amidst the dark electronics of his smoky purple-fied world, Joker ventures toward a realm that would (and might eventually) sit very comfortable amidst grandiose pop music. “On My Mind” is catchy and fun but comes directly out of the well-worn, dog-eared production guidelines that Timbaland left in the wake of FutureSex/LoveSounds. The title track meanders along with lifeless digital beeps and blips and despite a spirited effort from UK vocalist of the moment Jessie Ware, the track comes up a cosmic dud. “Electric Sea” isn’t much better with its all-too-nostalgic nod to 90s slow jams driven by airy keys and a neo-soul vocal offering from Jay Wilcox.
Elsewhere Joker finds smaller victories by re-employing UK rapper Buggsy, a collaboration first started on the excellent “4am,” which is unfortunately missing here. Joker’s production has always seemed fitting for rapping and on “Lost,” the success is mostly found again, with Buggsy spitting his way through choppy beats and a chorus of children for an energetic, though slightly uneven, number. However “Back in the Days” proves to be a misstep with Joker’s production too repetitively jerky for Buggsy and company who seem out of sync.
In many ways Joker’s debut is more of a hallucinatory collage of his palette than a focus drive towards a clear cut “vision” — something that made this year’s debut from SBTRKT so good despite inhabiting a very different realm (though with similar aspirations) of dubstep. This inconsistency makes The Vision more like a collection of singles than a cohesive offering. If this was the case, we could pick and choose our favorite tracks and relish in Joker’s attempt at varied styles. Since it’s not, we are often left scratching our heads.
Regardless, Joker does maintain a recognizable production sound on The Vision that is very much his own and that he seems comfortable working within. He just doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. Whether Joker tries to take it to the top of the pops, keep it straight purp’ or none of the above, remains to be seen. Until then, The Vision shows that thus far Joker works better pushing out erratic singles than within the format of a full-length. In the end, that might prove to be the best path for listener and producer alike.