At a time when Calvin Harris is going through something of a creative slump, and all his name means to most people is one of Taylor Swift’s ex-boyfriends, I felt it was only fair to remind people of the groundbreaking and frankly brilliant work he did at his peak. He pioneered an extremely distinctive style of Progressive House-influenced dance ballads that became the template for nearly all popular dance music for years thereafter and whose influence can still be palpably felt in the output of acts like the Chainsmokers. I selected this album because it facilitated his international breakthrough…before this album and its singles, he was largely only famous in England and Europe, to the point where Chris Brown thought he could get away with plagiarizing Harris on “Yeah3X” without any of his target audience noticing (it didn’t work).
The album does start out a little slow…the first full song, “Bounce”, is a bit on the tinny and simplistic side by Harris standards, and it’s followed by “Feels So Close”, one of Harris’ unwise attempt to do his own singing. It’s not that Harris has a terrible voice by any means, but Harris the producer’s trademark style requires massive, expressive belt voices, the Pop-music equivalent of operatic Heldensingers, to soar above his pounding, sweeping production, and Harris the vocalist’s light rasp isn’t up to the task. Indeed, even on the single “Let’s Go”, one can hear featured vocalist Ne-Yo vocally straining a little to be heard over the beat.
After the first few tracks, though, the album’s quality picks up in a big way. Granted, the shorter instrumental interludes, such as “Green Valley”, “Mansion” and “School”, come off as so much filler. However, the largely instrumental “Iron” and “Awooga” (both of which were released as promotional singles) are some of the most intense Synth-Pop we’ve heard since Depeche Mode ran out of steam in the late 2000s. These tracks are presumably what Skrillex was going for on his early albums, but Skrillex lacked Harris’ tight control and sense of restraint, so his attempts at this kind of thing just sounded like random machinery noise. Harris also does collaborations with two of the bigger name Grime rappers, Dizzee Rascal and Tinie Tempah, and while their lyrics are nothing particularly special (for those who don’t know, Grime Rap, a subgenre of Rap rooted in urban Britain, is marked by a distinct emphasis on production over lyrical quality), Harris’ beats on both songs are superb.
But frankly, being able to create great beats was less than half of what made Harris so special. There are plenty of great beatmakers out there—what made Harris different was his determination to create Dance music that could make for an enjoyable listening experience whether you were dancing to it or not. After all, the problem with most bad dance music is the mindset that the cliche ‘It has a good beat and you can dance to it’ is the only positive quality a dance song needs to deliver. And in the years before Harris broke through in the U.S. (especially ’09-’10), we were particularly plagued by a crop of horrible dance songs that were so concerned with getting people ‘on the floor’ that they didn’t bother with things like decent songwriting or listenable singing.
Moreover, Harris was determined to create Dance music with actual emotional content. He knew that with the limited vocal sections, he didn’t have the space to create anything terribly complex, so he instead used each song to focus a single straightforward emotion into an incredible intensity, rather like a Baroque opera aria would. These songs wound up resembling extremely dramatic power ballads set over thunderous dance beats. Harris wasn’t the first to do this style in the U.S….David Guetta had experimented with it a bit, and even had a hit, “When Love Takes Over”, in the style. But it wasn’t until Harris released the anguished love song “We Found Love”, featuring a powerful vocal performance by Rihanna, that this specific template became so popular that practically every Dance-Pop hit for the next six years followed it.
This did result in a certain amount of overexposure that made some people outright sick of the style, but when you remember the kind of Club song that dominated Dance-Pop in the previous years, I think you’ll agree this was at least an improvement. And while not everyone who attempted this style did it as effectively as Harris (and even he contributed one dud when he worked on Rihanna’s lackluster attempted followup, “Where Have You Been”), this album features some of the best works in that style ever produced. In addition to “We Found Love”, there’s the introspective “We’ll Be Coming Back” featuring Example, the glowing “I Need Your Love” featuring Ellie Goulding, the furiously defiant “Sweet Nothing” featuring Florence Welch, and the deeply loving “Thinking About You”, featuring Ayah Marar.
The vocalists all do strong work (Welch and Goulding in particular are magnificent), but the real star of this album is that man who brought substance and depth back to popular dance music, and he really should receive more credit for that singular achievement. After all, without him, Dance-Pop might still consist of shlock like LMFAO and Far East Movement to this day. Think about that the next time you turn on the radio, and remember who you have to thank for sparing you from it. That’s right…none other than Calvin Harris.