After working in the Berlin club scene for a decade, Jamie Lidell’s breakout moment was his 2005 album, Multiply, an unexpected fusion of Prince and Autechre that convincingly argued that Intelligent Dance Music is better when it’s actually danceable. His fusion of the minimal structure and hypnotic clicks and whirs of his label mate Aphex Twin with purple swagger garnered him lots of new fans, including one-time midnight vulture Beck, who became both a collaborator and something of a shapeshifting role model. After the de rigueur remix album, Lidell returned with 2008’s Jim, a surprising, stripped-down blue-eyed mash note to Sam Cooke and Donny Hathaway that charmed as many new fans as it alienated old ones. He followed that up with 2010’s Compass, a more hodgepodge, psychedelic offering.
Jamie Lidell’s new, self-titled album is a return to his electronic beginning and New Jack Swing inclinations, and is in its own way his answer to Beck’s Guero. He’s returning to the sound that first brought him attention, but he’s looking at it from a new angle and with all of his subsequent experiences coloring the execution. It doesn’t feel as radically fresh and inventive as his earlier work, but the tradeoff is the high level of craft and confidence that Lidell brings to the proceedings. He’s looked at the art of getting fans to move that thang from a variety of aesthetic angles, and brings all that tinkering together to create this more durable and effortlessly nasty set of songs.
Lidell has always been as much of a super fan as a super freak, and when he plunders his record collection, he always makes sure to get the details right. “You Naked” rides a spiral of Roger Troutman Zapp burps so hard it’s unseemly, while “Big Love” swings like a track Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis would have made for Janet Jackson back in the day, complete with an appropriately huge chorus. But even when going for wiggling bass and sly earworms, Lidell is still the egghead that got his start in electronic music’s hyper-intellectual minimalist wing. Unlike many contemporary dance-music producers, Lidell never overloads his tracks. He always carves out enough empty space between the beats and keyboard parts to allow his music to breathe, though he can’t help but cut away at his arrangements at odd angles, just to keep listeners on their toes. He also can’t shake a predilection for cold, brittle tones in his mixes; he wants his beats to sting as much as they swing. It gives kiss-offs like “Do Yourself A Faver” a sheen of menace, their most important ingredient.
Counting Jim, Lidell has released two different self-titled albums in his relatively short career, and both seemed designed to illustrate how Lidell saw himself, either as a sincere, old-school smoothie or a super-freak audio scientist. As with Beck, there’s always a question of how much of this portrait Lidell offers is truly him and how much is just this year’s model. But when the results knock this hard, it’s pointless to begrudge him his game of mirrors.