Cut Copy’s 2008 breakthrough, In Ghost Colours, was a rare thing in indie-dom: A much-hyped record with virtually no backlash, a multi-quadrant hit that vaulted a little-known Australian band to the top of an entire continent’s music scene. You could even argue that the New Order reissues in 2008 were a direct result of Cut Copy’s fame: If people were willing to shell out for a new New Order, why wouldn’t they be interested in buying the original?
Bands rarely hit on that kind of alchemy twice. So it’s not necessarily surprising that Zonoscope, the band’s third album, is something of a comedown (maybe even a disappointment?). It’s a less immediate collection that is padded with instrumental experiments and middling singles. Zonoscope is one of those rare cases of a band nailing the album in the press leading up to it: They’ve all called Zonoscope less poppy and more meandering. That’s not necessarily the entire case here, but don’t doubt the band on this: there are fewer big singles here, and this one isn’t likely to spawn multiple indie hits months after its release like the last album.
That metaphorical album cover is a better representation of the music on Zonoscope than you realize: After co-opting the sounds of the last 25 years of British dance, Cut Copy take New York disco by storm here, incorporating touchstones like heavy keys, ostentatious and wordless choruses, and drums that sound like traffic. That Hercules and Love Affair already mastered this formula hardly matters on singles like “Need You Now” and “Take Me Over,” Zonoscope’s opening salvos and twin highlights. “Need You Know” is especially delightful; its sense of motion never dissipates, and Dan Whitford’s searching vocals create an atmosphere of intense longing and emotional tenderness that few dance vocalists can match.
What prevents Zonoscope from becoming In Ghost Colours 2 is the same thing that makes Cut Copy novel in the first place: that they are a live band. This is clearly a case of a band exploring what it can do with expensive studio time as opposed to the hit-hungry band that made their last album. Do people listen to Cut Copy for 15-minute soundscapes like “Sun God”? Or two minute ones like “Strange Nostalgia for the Future”? Or for strumming, indie-lite guitar jams like “Where I’m Going” or “Hanging Onto Every Heartbeat”? We’re about to find out. Call it a sophomore slump, but an album late.
But even at their worst, Cut Copy are capable of some pretty transcendent moments; beyond “Take Me Over” and “Need You Now,” there’s the ‘80s, fast-car thrust of “Alisa” and the quiet catchiness of “Blink and You’ll Miss a Revolution.” Zonoscope is unlikely to catch the same raves as In Ghost Colours, but it’s still a fine album that proves Cut Copy aren’t poised to be a flash-in-the-pan. They might put out a few clunkers, but for those couple moments when they get it right, Cut Copy can be one of the better bands on earth.