- The "difficult second album" cliche may be the oldest in the music scribe's notebook, but following up Hercules and Love Affair must have been a daunting task. Andrew Butler's debut was a crossover smash, drawing praise from indie bastions NME and Pitchfork, a five-star review here on Resident Advisor, and propelling "Blind" into practically everyone's Best of 2008 lists. The hype machine variously credited the Love Affair with bringing the fun back to DFA Records, pushing the disco revival over the top and saving dance music.
Thankfully, on Blue Songs, Butler resists the temptation to play it safe. He's parted company with singer Antony Hegarty and co-producer Tim Goldsworthy, both of whom featured on every release since freshman 12-inch Classique #2/Roar. Antony, the original key to Hercules' indie cred, is replaced with two relative unknowns: Venezuelan transgender diva Aerea Negrot and Shaun Wright, a fan who first impressed with his resemblance (visual and vocal) to the "Queen of Disco," Sylvester. With a new production team, Mark Pistel of Meat Beat Manifesto and techno pioneer Patrick Pulsinger, comes a marked switch in focus—away from the disco that influenced Hercules and Love Affair, towards the late '80s, early '90s house that Butler showed his affection for on 2009's Sidetracked mix.
After the false start of "Painted Eyes," a faint facsimile of "Blind" with its low-slung groove, melodramatic vocals, swelling strings and horns, "My House" ushers in a brand new Love Affair. This first single positively pumps with energy, jacking along with the "get up" and "go" samples of a Technotronic jam, and lyrics about falling in love on, and with, the dance floor. The track and its fabulously camp video revel in retro '90s styling, but the production is starkly modern: minimal, spacious and crackling with detail. Ditto, "Step Up," which pours bubbles into a cavernous Chicago club and lets Bloc Party's Kele Okereke ride the froth, his ever-so-emo vocals insisting "it's not about how great it feels," despite the big fun happening all around him. EBM workout "Visitor" is even more direct, with Negrot giving voice to Butler's new-found joie de vivre: "give up your quiet life, do what your instincts say."
Tracks like "Falling" and "I Can't Wait" also pack their sorrows in their old bum bags and get on with the serious business of dancing, but traces remain of Hercules's former introspection. "Boy Blue," a Prince-esque acoustic ballad run through with a single throbbing synth line, allows Wright to air his stunning voice in tribute to a former love ("I'm grateful for the heights to which we've grown"). With a cover of "It's Alright" by Sterling Void, Butler abandons the warehouse vibes of hero Marshall Jefferson's classic production to frame Hercules mainstay Kim Ann Foxman with plaintive piano and the hints of whistles and sirens from a faraway rave. Faithful to the original's heavy subject matter—war, revolution, Afghanistan—the outlook remains optimistic: "I think it's gonna be alright / 'Cause the music plays forever."
This sense of triumph in the face of adversity is the most important thing Butler borrows from his gay disco and house roots. A similar theme ran through Hercules and Love Affair, but was overshadowed by the spectre of fresh defeats, raw wounds. With the misleadingly titled Blue Songs, Butler and friends have put this heartbreak behind them—never mind "I Will Survive," they have survived. The album is less bittersweet than its predecessor, and doesn't scale the same highs and lows, but if you borrow its rose-tinted glasses, you will see plenty of reasons to be cheerful.
01. Painted Eyes
02. My House
03. Answers Come in Dreams
05. Boy Blue
07. I Can't Wait
08. Step Up
10. It's Alright