Free Your Mind
(Modular Recordings; )
By David M. Goldstein | 27 November 2013
I’ll let you in on a little peek behind the scenes at CMG operations: each of the writers are required to submit their requisite Year-End lists this week. The new Cut Copy album was not part of mine, meaning that there were at least twenty different albums released in 2013 that I enjoyed more than Free Your Mind. Cut Copy’s previous album, Zonoscope was my favorite release in 2011, wasn’t even close really, and there’s at least seven songs from In Ghost Colours (2008) that have achieved “do not remove under penalty of death” status on my Spotify mixes. Phrased differently, if I can’t in good conscience include Free Your Mind on a year-end highlight summary, someone fucked up.
Let it be said that Free Your Mind is not so much “total meltdown” as it is “sky high expectations not being met.” Twenty-eight listenable minutes of music out of a possible fifty-one might be an acceptable ratio for most bands, but not Cut Copy, who spent Zonoscope seamlessly packing thirty years of dance music into one near flawless hour. Chicago House, glitchy trance, Men at Work, and ’80s Fleetwood Mac—nothing was off limits. The first thing anyone will notice about Free Your Mind is how bizarrely one-note it is; exclusively fat loping beats interspersed with major piano hooks and lyrics endlessly extolling the glory of love. That’s it. Like his spiritual forbearer Bernard Sumner, no one is looking to frontman Dan Whitford for profound societal pronouncements. But nobody should ever have to notice the lyrics on a Cut Copy album either.
But herein lies the twist: the limited palette is on purpose! You see, Free Your Mind is meant to be something of a concept album, making its forehead-slapping title and ’90s screensaver artwork more excusable. It’s designed as a tribute to two Summers of Love: 1967 Haight-Ashbury and 1989 Manchester. Seeing as Cut Copy doesn’t have any Jefferson Airplane covers in their arsenal, you can guess which of the two years features more heavily.
I’ve gone on record in the past stating that the handful of classics from the Madchester Dance genre comprise some of my favorite albums: the sleazy hedonism and Loose Fit jeans of Happy Mondays Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches (1990); the shimmering Brit-Rock of the first Stone Roses album (1989); and especially Primal Scream’s Screamadelica (1991), arguably the pinnacle of the era and the single record that Free Your Mind tries hardest to evoke. And the Ecstasy-driven ’90s Madchester sound of shambolic beats and laconic vocals has been undergoing a bit of a revival in the past few years, notably with recent Australians Jagwar Ma and the currently dormant Working for a Nuclear Free City. But while those acts have made a conscious effort to place a modern spin on a classic genre, Cut Copy have purposely elected to treat Madchester like a museum artifact, paying tribute by not deviating from the established playbook at all.
The self-imposed limits are unquestionably frustrating, but Cut Copy are simply too skilled at this not to get a handful of bangers out of the process. Take the first three full songs (their obsession with interludes continues unabated), tack on “Meet Me in a House of Love” and “Take Me Higher,” and you’ve got a pretty excellent twenty-eight minute EP; something Cut Copy could’ve called “The Madchester Project” and released as a stop-gap teaser before a more diverse full length. It’s impossible to deny the pleasures of the title track, “We Are Explorers,” and “Take Me Higher”—all incredibly catchy songs that despite swiping Screamdelica piano hooks wholesale, make entirely good on the big beats and skyscraping peaks that comprise the best of the genre. The part on “Take Me Higher” where the drum loop drops out only to be eventually re-introduced and EXPLODE into a huge piano hook is only rivaled in 2013 by the climax of Foals’ “Milk and Black Spiders” for “festival moment where spun eighteen-year-olds will claim to see God.”
But the album length repetition is impossible to ignore, and the run from “Footsteps” through “Dark Corners and Mountaintops” is the least impressive stretch of music of Cut Copy’s career. They’ll recover from this; Cut Copy is an intelligent band that’s too in touch with their strengths to make the concept album mistake more than once, but I hope it takes them a little less than three years to do so. Chalk up Free Your Mind to the “difficult fourth album” blip, and incorporate its five good songs into your bangin’ Zonoscope mix for something considerably more awesome. And go see them live.