Disco of the Gods

Pub date July 23, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

I use my favorite pair of scissors to cut out photos of dancers and models from the late ’70s and early ’80s. Sometimes the designs and imagery on the other side of the magazine paper are more compelling and attractive than the literal combos of flesh and clothing that produce the silhouette.

The past is the present is what you make it. So Walter Benjamin and Fredric Jameson said, in torturously profound terms. For a sonic illustration, look and listen no further than Hercules and Love Affair’s self-titled debut (Mute), a contender if not outright champion in the 100-point rating realms of metacritic.com and Pitchfork Media.

When critics aren’t running from the phobic fantasies of joining soulless fuck zombies at the Continental Baths that Hercules and Love Affair apparently provokes in fevered, perhaps repressed, imaginations, they’re keyword-searching variants of "gay," "AIDS," and "disco" to provide shorthand blog-banal references for the album’s sound. Thus the usually vaguely defined spirit of Arthur Russell is invoked more often than the influence of living, breathing Kevin Saunderson, even though Hercules and Love Affair‘s "You Belong" is like a whiteface Goth niece-nephew of Inner City’s "Good Life." Thus no one compares Antony Hegarty’s countertenor to Boy George’s and wonders if Hegarty is given more respect and awards simply because he honors pretense over humor. Hercules and Love Affair sports two, maybe three of 2008’s most glorious songs. On "Hercules’ Theme," "Athene," and "Blind," core member and songwriter Andrew Butler crafts superb horn and string arrangements and layers them over a live rhythm section to produce swank, strutting syncopation. The sound is lush and swoony — as unique as the fluorescent pastels of the disc’s cover art — and unlike anything else floating out of speakers and headphones at the moment. I can’t resist comparing the time-lapse vaudevillian blooms at the close of "Hercules’ Theme" to "Doin’ the Do" by Betty Boo — where are you? — if only to add some irreverence to the poker-faced hosannas for the group. But Butler is a rare talent — one who’ll flourish the further he gets from art school.

In theory, Butler’s communal approach to assigning vocalists — which tweaks an earlier landmark club crossover, Massive Attack’s 1991 Virgin effort, Blue Lines — should yield a singing bouquet to match his arrangements. Hegarty is Hercules and Love Affair‘s most florid singer. His strained emoting suits his tunes on the disc better than any Antony and the Johnsons track, yet not once does his falsetto match the sensuality and soul that his antecedent Sylvester brings to a song like "I Need Somebody to Love Tonight." Kim Ann Foxman inhabits Athene in a song of the same name, but stumbles off-key through the plodding "Iris." Butler does a good Russell in "This Is My Love," but no vocalist can rescue the obvious lyric of "True False/Fake Real."

Hercules and Love Affair revive the silhouettes if not always the spirits of disco’s and house’s native New Yorkers. At best, they create their own haunted wonderland. At worst, they host a pose party that’s the musical equivalent of the narcissism that motored Shortbus (2006). Once upon a time, Manhattan was wilder and hungrier.


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