When a band gets together and decides to call itself “Digitalism”, there are a certain number of assumptions being made: One, unless the name is caked in irony, there will be a rather sizable electronic component to the music that this band will compose. Two, which follows assumption one rather closely, the electronics will have a fairly uniform feel throughout, lending the band the feel of adherance to the made-up movement defined in its name. Finally, there will be a retro feel to the music, as the idea of digitally-dominated this-or-that is something that pointed toward the future 20 or 25 years ago, but seems relatively old hat today.
On these grounds, the band that has decided to call itself Digitalism succeeds on all counts. It is unquestionably electronic in ways that propogate throughout its debut album Idealism, complete with plenty of the “new wave” bands like New Order and Information Society that paved the way for the idea that this sort of music could one day be thought of as “retro”.
Unfortunately, these guidelines don’t include soul. These guidelines don’t include pop hooks, or lyrical flourish, or instrumental virtuosity. Digitalism, in turn, also provides none of these things.
Purveyors of a sound, the two halves of Digitalism (Jens Moelle and Ismail Tuefekci) truly clicks when the sound is all that is required to make a certain track function. Example: Closing track “Echoes” is a perfect little techno-influenced track that features no words whatsoever; it simply shows up, establishes a techno-influenced beat, tosses in a few heavily-affected synth-derived melodies, and ends. It’s like Daft Punk with more melody and fewer tongues in cheeks. “Pogo” works on this level as well — it’s teeming with those strutting guitar lines that the boys in Franz Ferdinand just play the hell out of, the vocals are one part David Byrne and one part Devo while the lyrics say absolutely nothing at all, and the proper dance that one should perform while listening to it is explained in its one-word title. There’s no hidden subtext, there’s no aspiration toward artistic legitimacy, just… “Pogo”. If only more modern music could be so user-friendly.
The problem, then, is that Digitalism has a habit of doing just the opposite of what makes “Pogo” so fun. Starting the album with “Magnets” is a bad first impression to make. “Magnets” is all cut-up, repeated vocals and glitchy noises, slowly developing and revealing itself to be superficially danceable but not much fun at all. As the album progresses, certain themes keep coming up; Cairo, Jupiter, and lots of dance beats should make for a wonderful little journey, but the connections between the three are never apparent. The connotation of those locales would lean toward the exotic; the execution, by contrast, seems rote. By the time the retro spelling lesson that encompasses the entirety of “Digitalism in Cairo”‘s lyrical content is audible enough to figure out (“F-I-R-E-I-N-C-A-I-R-O”…oh! The Cure! I get it!), you wonder why you even bothered to figure out what was being said.
And good god. “Apollo-Gize”? Are we really attempting sensitivity on an album devoid of any feeling whatsoever?
If nothing else, maybe “Apollo-Gize” might just be the proof that Digitalism is, generally at least, sticking to what it’s “good” at. When they try to inject emotion and feeling into the equation, they come off as insincere and more than a little cheesy. Avoiding moments like “Apollo-Gize” could easily become priority #1 for a band of this nature. Even if there was no “Apollo-Gize” on Idealism, however, it wouldn’t make what’s left any more interesting. Digitalism has done enough with Idealism to define itself and its sound; now they just need to make that sound palatable enough for people to actually want to hear it more than once.