Run through the watchwords that describe Western culture in the first decade of the 21st century, and you have readymade lyrics for one of Hot Chip’s liturgical choruses: irony and supplication; fetish without fantasy; retro-future and science-not-fiction; blogs-not-barstools; the prominence of the whim. Beginning with the gangsta-nerd breakthrough, Coming on Strong, and 2006’s The Warning, London’s Hot Chip has made records that appeal to a sense of imperfection all too perfectly, concocting a worldview in which the arrhythmic dance hero and the also-also-ran stand together on an Olympic podium. In other words, Hot Chip seems to want to be all the things most artists settle for after the fact–a one-hit wonder or a guilty pleasure, underground phenom or bedroom icon, a cult classic/not-bestseller. But, as is poetic justice for the Don Quixote-wannabe, success, admiration, and accolades from both pundit and populace keep getting in the way.
With Made in the Dark, Hot Chip has transcended to a state of alchemical reaction, their music the semi-naturally occurring result of sociocultural interactions and the philosopher’s stones of cold irony and warm electronics. Electro-funk and arena cheese, the self-obsession of the iEverything generation, drag racing and congestion charges, Willie Nelson and William Blake–all trickle down like an ’80s economy into the magic potion of Hot Chip-ness. It makes Made in the Dark into something that’s not always as instantly likeable as their previous brilliant full-length albums. After all, sometimes it just sucks to look at your culture in the mirror. But at the same time, Made in the Dark was always going to be their best yet.
Hot Chip’s last album-length release, a mix for iK7’s DJ-Kicks series, showed a little bit of the group’s musical roots: Club bangers, ’60s club soul, and brash arena-rockisms crossed with minimalist techno and a penchant for soft balladry. Much has been made of the group slowly unleashing its “rock” leanings on the world, and it’s true that the guitar makes several appearances on Made in the Dark. But to Hot Chip, rock has a different meaning. It’s a dead language, resurrected to confound an imperial overseer, like on “One Pure Thought,” which starts like Talk Talk playing Journey, and winds up like an ironic take on Depeche Mode’s biblical moments–albeit while name-dropping Nile Rogers.
Hot Chip’s signature sound is still here in droves. High, muted harmonies and cheeky lyrical jabs (“I’ve got a roll of coins/I’m aimin’ for your loins”) on tunes that bounce between floor-packing dance anthems and shoulder-swaying piano ballads. Dance music, from reggaeton, and hip-hop to funk and neo-soul, stilted by the jerky rationality of an emotionally muted Londoner, collar turned up against driving rain and awkward glances. Even at Made in the Dark’s most put-ya-hands-up moments (and there are lots), there’s that self-deprecating honesty that seems to define the oughties. “Hold On,” for example, drives on hand-clap rims and acidic funk basslines, only to end with palindrome-like drones and the testosterone-free Oxbridge bar threat, “Sir, I’ve a good mind to take you/Outside/Outside.”
If Hot Chip is the flagship of 21st-century self-doubt–a generation of young men raised on technology and the unavoidable future of erectile dysfunction drugs–then Made in the Dark is its Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the simulacrum of experience and to forge in the smithy of a microchip the uncreated conscience of my race.”