The rise of melancholic dance music

Kieran Yates

James Blake Album Cover 300x300 The rise of melancholic dance music Smiling disco divas turn back – the dancefloors have had a melancholic makeover- but still upbeat enough to simultaneously dance and cry to. The arguable leader of the pack is James Blake, who burst (well, shuffled uncomfortably) onto the scene towards the latter end of last year, dropping bassy beats with some of the most solemn tones this side of the mainstream.

2011 has seen a massive wave of underground dance acts from the dubstep/experimental world into Pop, and with it has bought high tempo dance beats, complete with sombre lyrics, and muted melodies. Whether its Robyn stalking an ex on the dancefloor, Ghostpoet’s stoical road to success in the city, or James Blake pining over a limited love, dance music is staging a takeover in the clubs- just not a very happy one.

Of course, there have always been somewhat melancholic musicians (Portishead/Lamb/Radiohead anyone?) but never before have they captured the mainstream dance scene so captively. FACT mag describe Deadboy as famously being ‘music to cry on the dancefloor to’- a moniker that could fit easily with a host of dance artists in the pop and underground realm.

Indulging ourselves in emotion on the dancefloor, has paved a way for a new release – catharsis. So are we the cathartic generation? The last 3 raves I’ve attended have had a heady dose of stripped back beats and quivering bottom lips, while ravers have bought the pain of break ups to a dubstep rave (cue moist faces full of tears, not sweat.)

In terms of mainstream female takes on emotion, perhaps unsurprisingly, the women know their heartbreak. Lyrics that could be straight out of a classic pop ballad in Katy B’s ‘Perfect Stranger’ (feat. Magnetic Man) with accompanying video is quite a forlorn tale of unrequited love (who hasn’t been there) which is an old single now, but is still doing the club playlist rounds.

In the more pop realms, Robyn, the darling of European dance, is far more upbeat in her tone but equally heartbreaking-these are lyrics that will pierce your heart- if you’ve been there, you’ll know what I mean: ‘I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her…’ from ‘Dancing on my own’ is almost sinister in its pain, you can almost smell the salty tears rolling down her face as you listen. Although she provides a sense of jubilation at the air-punching tempo change mid through, almost taking delight in dancing solo, it doesn’t do enough to mop up the teary mess. The album ‘Body Talk Part One’ released in 2010 is old now, but the singles are still a staple on the dancefloors, and they don’t get much happier with gems like ‘With every heartbeat’ and ‘Hang with me’.

Adele, on the other hand, makes no allowances of the fact that she’s essentially, made an album to sit and lip quiver to. Deeply emotive, and remixed from everyone to Cousin Cole, to the great dubstep drops from Jamie XX, her album tracks are a club staple, emotional, beautiful, and best enjoyed alongside a deep sigh. While the downbeat collaboration of Jamie XX’s other track with Gil Scott Heron, ‘NY York is killing me’ is an almost painful recollection of urban life that fails to raise a smile, but sounds great.

So much has been written about James Blake’s understated beats and haunting voice, its seems almost too obvious to point out the effect of the delayed pauses in ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ or the uncomfortable build up in ‘Limit to your love’ that touches a nerve somewhere deep inside, but in no way aims to reach for a smile. After an hour of Blake, it’s safe to say that joyful laughter seems like a alien concept – I felt like a hollow shell of sorts, albeit with a stirred emotion, but no laughs. No laughs at all.

Experimental hip hopper Ghostpoet with his album ‘Peanut butter and Melancholy Jam’ provides a lens into the stoicism of drudging through the city. The female vocals on ‘Survive It’ is less a desperate plea, more an apathetic musing on the blackness of living mechanically day to day; a soundtrack to depression might be a harsh but more fitting description. That by no means takes away from the musical prowess of the album as a whole-quite the opposite-melancholy is celebrated throughout, and its honesty is precisely the reason it works.

There are other artists that do this in less obvious ways on the underground dubstep scene. It has been said that Girl Unit’s ‘Wut’ is a sad affair; hollow, sweet voiced vulnerable vocals, and overpowering drops. I can’t put my finger on exactly why it feels so sad, but rest assured, full of joy it ain’t. Jai Paul, also deep in the depths of the underground, has built a following on what appears to be essentially, two songs on his myspace (if you’re reading this, please remedy!) where he sings on ‘BTSTU’ , ‘I’m back and I want what is mine’ a track about heartbreak, and the almost saccharine vocals are syrupy sweet goodness are juxtaposed alongside almost violent beat interjections, but they work perfectly, sort of like seeing a small kitty being kicked by a very heavy, very amazing boot.

So is this is a real move into melancholy or just an attempt to contain the current sound stream of downbeat (in every sense) tracks? I wouldn’t want to deconstruct too much for fear of losing the joy of listening, but it might make sense that in these dark days of cuts, high cost urban living, and political heartbreak, that music might respond to a downhearted climate. We need the beats now, more than ever, and they deserve applause for providing a real reflection of how we feel. The over-arching message is this: things are shit, but the music isn’t. It seems melancholic dance has arrived and it’s here to stay. I couldn’t be happier.

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  • crackerjackie

    So which records do you mean then? The vast majority of disco’s biggest hits were upbeat, both in mood and tempo. Even I Will Survive (had you mentioned it) doesn’t qualify, since its tone is defiant rather than melancholy.

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