Beta Love, Ra Ra Riot’s last album, was a tipping point for the group’s musical identity, a transformation into full-on synth-pop that downplayed the more homespun elements in favor of processed pop gloss. It was an announcement of a more mainstream, less distinct musical identity, one that fans could either adjust to and accept, or consign to the bin of once-endearing bands that caved to the contemporary pop addiction to ’80s electronic glitz. If you’re in the latter camp, you’d be forgiven for thinking Need Your Light, the new album, is more of the homogenized same. But in almost every way, it’s an improvement—better hooks, better production, and a more surefooted embrace of the synth-laden songcraft. Sure, musically and lyrically it’s about as daring as Up With People, but now that’s the point, the band has gotten very good at it.
The biggest deviation from the album’s formula—EDM dance-floor beats with gauzy synths and fuzzy bass—also pays the most dividends. Album opener “Water” is a slinky, polyrhythmic R&B groove, with a refrain as thick and overdriven as MGMT. The multi-layered drums and swooping synths make for a rousing anthem, even as it maintains a melancholy edge, almost Peter Gabriel-esque in its elegiac feel. It’s also the best song on the album, a high bar the ensuing move-your-body manifesto can’t quite match. Not for lack of trying, though—the subsequent tracks have a vitality missing from the previous attempt at crafting an album of sugar-coated pop confections. If it’s all a surface-level affair, that doesn’t lessen the pleasure of throwback-style pop nuggets executed with such verve.
With “Absolutely,” the second track and peppiest number on Need Your Light, Ra Ra Riot starts the dance party and rarely lets up. Kicking off with an arpeggiated bass and Wes Miles’ signature high-pitched vocals (along with Rebecca Zeller’s violin, still the most distinctive element of the band), it delivers a celebratory rave-up refrain, the kind of feel-good single you can picture soundtracking teenage sing-alongs and Kia commercials alike. The title track, a slow-build plea of longing and love set to an EDM-worthy beat, is more jittery and ethereal, a swooning paean of modern club-kid salvation. “Call Me Out” doesn’t just sound like Journey, it sounds like Journey has possessed the band, and makes a case for Miles being Steve Perry in disguise. “Every Time I’m Ready To Hug,” in addition to being a great song name, wields a saucy go-go dancer rhythm set to a slowed-down surf-rock vibe.
But mostly, the songs are of a piece, with lyrics about love, being true to yourself, letting go of fears, and other such generically positive encouragements. It occasionally feels like a collection of lines taken from motivational posters, when it’s not being overtly silly (the vapid disco tics and Queen-style harmonic flourishes of “Bouncy Castle”), but the pleasure here lies in the saccharine joy of such frothy, bouncing pop anthems. And despite an odd final track that basically functions as a “what’s wrong with you?” retort to those who refuse to join the party at their live shows, the album overall gives itself over to the hortatory hoedown of a mid-’80s club scene, steeped in the era’s instrumentations and song structures, but pulled—sometimes awkwardly, but mostly smoothly—into a 21st-century pop arena.