Pop music critic based in Jakarta
'Future Nostalgia' by Dua Lipa (Warner Records/File)
Let’s get the good news out first: Dua Lipa’s new album is, by any stretch of the dreaded phrase, not a sophomore slump. Far from it, it’s a cool, compact and breezy listen from start to finish, an item of note in itself compared to her effective and promising yet eventually overstuffed 2017 debut (its Complete Edition contains a whopping 25 tracks).
The bad news? Despite its hefty title and obvious quality control, there’s little reward from cursory and repeated listening. Although clearly devised as an attempt to establish her stranglehold in the upper echelons of pop stardom, Future Nostalgia is, for all intents and purposes, merely a step above your average New Music Friday tunes on Spotify.
From Lipa’s perspective, this is understandable. Following a double win at last year’s Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist (the first year with eight nominees in the category to boot), there must have been immense pressure to build on the foundation of this type of recognition and follow up on the mainstream momentum started by the British-Albanian songstress’ omnipresent “New Rules”.
It’s telling that Future Nostalgia’s lead single, “Don’t Start Now”, was cowritten by Lipa with the same group of people who wrote “New Rules”. It serves as something of a sequel, even if only in spirit. In place of a trop-pop concoction with the inevitable beat drop in the chorus, “Don’t Start Now” is a sleek and slinky — if a tad tepid — kiss-off anthem transported straight from the 1970s, in all its discofied, roller rink-tastic glory. It would have probably gone head-to-head in the charts with Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” had it come out in 1978.
However, Lipa’s husky, smoky contralto is for the most part at odds with much of Future Nostalgia’s precision-tooled breeziness. When paired with an apropos soundscape, Lipa’s gritty and soulful vocals shine with flying colors: past single “IDGAF” — still Lipa’s best song to date — brims with edge and attitude, while she imbues her house-inflected Grammy-winning track “Electricity” with genuine warmth. She sounds more at home covering Etta James than Barbra Streisand anyway.
At certain points in Future Nostalgia, Lipa sounds as if she’s trying to fit into the coy and coquettish (blond) female pop star mold: although genially crafted, “Cool” and “Good In Bed” are essentially rewrites of Taylor Swift’s “Cruel Summer” (just wait for a mash-up called “Cool Summer” in the foreseeable future) and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Everything He Needs”.
They are just largely bereft of Swift or Jepsen’s engaging bombastic and playful girlishness as Lipa’s voice isn’t necessarily a fit for this material. When her voice is a natural fit, though, it is marred by subpar songwriting: the chorus of new wave throwback and second single “Physical” — which interpolates Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 hit of the same name — sags rather than soars, killing all the momentum built up by the verses.
These are frustrating instances only because Lipa is among the most interesting vocalists to have emerged in the better part of the last decade, with a clear vision for her own brand of pop and keen understanding of the pop game.
There’s something refreshingly old-school about her approach as evidenced by the slow, consistent build-up of “Don’t Start Now” via TV and radio appearances, not to mention her insistence on creating albums instead of a steady stream of singles and her deep appreciation for pop foremothers; four of the album’s 11 tracks were helmed by Stuart Price, who coproduced Madonna’s 2005 dance opus Confessions on a Dancefloor, an obvious influence on Future Nostalgia.
Unfortunately, thanks to pop’s innate requirement for its movers and shakers to conform rather than command, what could have been a game-changer falls short of its maker’s noble intentions, leaving the title track’s grandiose opening line (“You want a timeless song/I wanna change the game”) ring somewhat hollow over the course of the album.
Nevertheless, flashes of brilliance can still be found, particularly in the album’s mid-point: “Levitating” is a slice of pure disco joy; “Pretty Please” features juicy stabs of bass and cowbells over chopped up vocals; while the album’s best track “Hallucinate” struts, grinds and sweats over throbbing bass lines borrowed from Madonna’s “Impressive Instant” and Kylie Minogue’s “Light Years”.
It’s in the album’s personal moments that we get a better glimpse of Lipa’s personality and pizzazz, such as in “Love Again” with its clever sampling of White Town’s 1997 hit “Your Woman” and “Boys Will Be Boys” (“...and girls will be women”), a feminist manifesto that closes the album on a high note. Future Nostalgia could have absolutely benefited from more statement-making excursions in this vein.
Still, in an otherwise precarious time in modern history, Future Nostalgia makes for an apt soundtrack at isolation parties in the world. At best, it’s a prompt reminder of the sheer vitality and necessity of music when the going gets tough; at worst, despite their potential for ubiquity, there’s no playing these songs out loud in clubs or gatherings for the time being.
“I would’ve stayed at home/‘Cause I was doing better alone,” intones Lipa cheekily in the INXS-sampling and third single “Break My Heart”, an accidental premonition of sorts.
As Future Nostalgia’s cover suggests, here’s hoping that Lipa is headed for a future release that does her artistic chops justice and takes her sound to higher grounds. In the meantime, Future Nostalgia is here for us to jam and dance to — in the comfort of our homes. (wng)
Fajar Zakhri is a pop music critic based in Jakarta.
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.