Rating: **** (out of 5)
Standout Tracks: “Pharaohs & Pyramids,” “Take Me Over”
Nowadays, the type of music that Australia’s Cut Copy makes—glitzy, 80s-flavored electronic dance pop—seems to motivate an entire generation of contemporary bands intent on trading their guitars for synthesizers, all in some nostalgic quest to revive the days of the Human League, Pet Shop Boys and New Order. It’s a noble pursuit, and—as represented by artists such as Glass Candy, Passion Pit, Wild Nothing, Twin Shadow and even Hot Chip—a genre revival that continually draws exciting and strikingly non-ironic inspiration from the halcyon days of uninhibited new wave glamour.
Cut Copy paints its timeless portraits of effortless amusement and youthful abandon in bright, shimmering pastels of neon color, infusing beats stripped from early house music into the sugary drip of synthesized tones. The resultant sound feels too transcendent, too spontaneous to get mired in the melancholy dregs of musical nostalgia. Vocalist and instrumentalist Dan Whitford sings with a kind of wistful yet impressively resonant croon that immediately calls to mind Tears For Fears’ Roland Orzabal, especially in the ease with which Whitford’s voice slides from distant baritone to impassioned tenor.
The band’s debut, 2004’s Bright Like Neon Love, remains a significant forerunner in the contemporary synth-pop movement, but it was 2008’s In Ghost Colours that solidified Cut Copy’s mastery over the genre. Brimming with raw energy and concise songwriting, the album spawned instant classics such as “Lights and Music” and “Hearts on Fire.” Cut Copy’s ability to shape active, bouncy verses that inevitably burst into sublime, unforgettable choruses remains their strongest suit, and a quality that unifies their modest body of work.
Their third effort, Zonoscope, while not as necessarily anthemic as In Ghost Colours, and not quite as innovative as Bright Like Neon Love, still shines out as Cut Copy’s most coherent album—a mature, beautifully-constructed piece of electronic pop music. In an interview with Pitchfork, Whitford promised a more “repetitive, hypnotic, rhythmic” sound, a quality immediately obvious on the album’s sprawling opener, “Need You Now.”
Zonoscope opens with a distant melodic loop gradually fading in as discordant bursts of feedback introduce a pulsing beat, steadily building handclaps and tambourines as glassy tones and shimmers of synth sprinkle into the mix. Eventually, Whitford’s voice slips in, rich but reserved. “Hush baby don’t you cry,” he sings, the instruments swirling beneath him with passive agitation. Minutes pass before the song deviates from its leisured gallop, as Cut Copy’s signature recurring vocal trope—the “ooh”—gradually provokes Whitford’s swelling voice until it cries with gripping passion, “I know we’re going crazy but I need you now!” The song builds tension so steadily, packing so many emotions into its slow burn that by the time it reaches soaring, chill-inducing catharsis, it feels conclusive enough to close the album.
The rest of Zonoscope flows so effortlessly, its songs composed with such poise that a candid listener might confuse Cut Copy for seasoned veterans. “Take Me Over” playfully bounces with nuanced percussion and modest guitar hooks whose immediate radio-friendly appeal might easily soundtrack your summer. “Where I’m Going” skips along to a chugging, Alvin Stardust thump amid dulled back-up vocals and rousing yells that feel as inspired as anything in Cut Copy’s catalogue.
On Zonoscope, Cut Copy thankfully appeals to more than the demands of a hipster dance floor, instead favoring articulate, synth-savvy tunes that function more as head-spinners than body-movers. The album still boasts its fair share of visceral rhythms; “Pharaohs & Pyramids” weaves the bass-heavy rhythmic lilt of Chicago house with a repertoire of carefully integrated computer instruments that should feel dated. With its synth-steel-drum refrain, “Blink And You’ll Miss A Revolution” evokes the same primitive feel, deceptively more at place on the Commando soundtrack than on a pop record released two decades later.
However, in the end, the confidence and mastery with which Cut Copy approaches its compositions on Zonoscope serve to cleanse the record of its faux-80s sheen. This is concise, inventive, and astonishingly catchy electronic music, lovingly rooted in the past but appropriately aimed at the future.