Review: The Knocks Take Disco Back to the Future on Their Long-Awaited Debut, ’55’
Release Date: March 4, 2016
Label: Big Beat Records
All due respect to Iggy Azalea (which isn’t much), but you can’t just throw around the phrase “new classic” and not expect to look like a fool. It’s a bold assertion — that your music is either a modern reincarnation of nostalgic vibes or an epoch-marking harbinger of things to come. It’s hard enough to create music that makes an impression in the moment, and harder still not to go the way of New Coke while everyone else is still drinking the old Classic. And yet, New York City production duo the Knocks had the gall to name their standout single “Classic.” Originally released in 2014, the song’s golden, kicked-back jams and summery “come to me baby” chorus came with a manifesto: “Lifeless pop songs are great, but we want to deliver something that is not so easily faceless,” the group’s B-Roc and JPatt wrote in a letter to Noisey. “We tried to create a wall of nostalgic energy that anyone could easily access by simply pressing play.” This mission statement would prove to be a healthy guideline for the full-length debut they’ve had marinating since 2010.
To say that 55 is long-awaited is both an understatement and irrelevant — ten of the record’s 14 tracks had already been released in full before the LP dropped — but those feel old in more of a standards sort of way than just, you know, having been around for a while. The Knocks start with vintage disco sensibilities (glittery, drawn-out synths and smoky beats) and improve on them with a modern crispness and a surprising bit of maturity. The Knocks succeed at channeling a waning, aching fondness for both the day a setting sun leaves behind and anticipation for what tomorrow will bring. On 55 (which is titled after the address of their Chinatown studio), the duo does more than just wallow in old memories — they’re making glorious new ones.
The Knocks explore this theme of modern nostalgia with some of the most disparate collaborators in pop. Carly Rae Jepsen charmingly flips expectations for a song called “Love Me Like That” with the brutal realization that now there’s a “don’t” before that phrase. If it weren’t so fresh, it would almost be ‘90s-corny — which happens to exactly be the Fuller House-theme singer’s sweet spot. On “Kiss the Sky,” Wyclef Jean fires off lines with the programmed intensity of the Terminator reciting the Macarena. Cam’ron paints a gritty, riddled picture of their Gotham hometown in “New York City,” concluding that “the Apple is rotten, but I love it.”
The lyrics to soaring Saturday Night Fever-dream “Collect My Love,” aren’t the most in-depth (though they are belted to perfection by former Glee star Alex Newell with Off the Wall-like “ooh” flourishes), but even then they convey a sense of joy and yearning. They flourish atop a dazzling neon stage of effortless-seeming house-disco beats and intoxicating, clipped synths and euphoric piano riffs. The love is there, but it’s on the listener to heed to the call.
Jepsen and Newell might want for their love to be requited, and Matthew Koma wishes for a Taylor Swift to call his own, but on 55, the Knocks mainly just want you to be happy. They’ve made a record full of songs you can enjoy over the din at a cool bar on a second date that’s going really well. Or familiar-sounding tracks that you might have danced to at a college dorm party in — gosh — was it really that long ago? Who knows if history will allow “Classic” and its promising mates to truly live up to the track’s name, but in the moment, 55 conjures up a very specific, warm, and essential part of the past made modern. Heck, they could’ve called it 88.