Hot Chip have always had a streak of violence in them, most memorably in the title track of The Warning which warned: “Hot Chip will break your legs/Snap off your head/Hot Chip will put you down/Under the ground”. Of course, their threatening violence was always about as menacing as a poodle, even if their words had the bite of a Rottweiler. It was hard to believe that these dorky synthpop fellas had ever done any harm to anyone.
But you could never be entirely sure, in the same way that you can never be 100% certain that the smiling stranger you’re sat next to on a train hasn’t killed somebody.
Hot Chip generated interest way beyond the disco floor, becoming cult indie heroes, thanks to this cunning mixture of acerbic wit, mild danger, and heart-tugging sincerity. They were unique, despite their mixture of electronica and rock having very clear antecedents from the mighty New Order to Primal Scream to the New Pornographers. “Over and Over” and “Ready to the Floor” were hits that couldn’t have been written by anyone else. And they were transcendent.
A Bath Full of Ecstasy comes 4 years after Why Make Sense?, their first album to receive mixed reviews, the euphoria they used to inspire seemingly having worn off a little. So they have something to prove with this one: that they are an enduring band of lasting interest, rather than a lucky bunch of curios who scored a few hits in the 2000s.
Judging by the glowing reviews so far, they’ve succeeded. And in the first three tracks it’s easy to see why people would think this.
“Melody of Love” opens the album as it intends to go on: with a sweet melancholy, a hesitant optimism, a soothing reassurance. It starts off with Alexis Taylor and piano, builds through surging burbling synths, and climaxes with a gospel sample that is perhaps the “sound that resonates” that the song searches for, like the Holy Grail of music, the secret antidote to the poison of modern life that is the “Melody of Love”. It’s a lush, powerful song of integrity and beauty.
“Spell”, which comes next, is even better, and perhaps the album’s high point. It started off as an idea from their studio time with Katy Perry (a bizarre, fascinating partnership), before evolving into the weird sadomasochistic jam that appears on this album. “Give me your whip/I’m lost in it” Taylor croons early on amongst the beeps and boops and surging electronic production, and his tones make those whips seem like the innocent bedroom play of 50 Shades. It builds to a splendid climax repeating “now I feel your curse” followed by “it’s all I wanted” over and over, Taylor making this psychosexual back-and-forth sound as ordinary as doing the washing up, and as splendid as climbing a mountain, somehow at the same time.
The title track is most notable for the autotuning of its chorus, which makes the whole song sound like an overwhelming burst of sunshine through the rain.
These three opening tracks are as glorious, catchy and uplifting as anything Hot Chip’s gifted to us in their curious history. But like most Hot Chip albums, the band struggle to sustain this glory across 50 minutes, dipping quickly into the unexceptional with “Echo”. Overlong and monotonous, it’s a summation of the problems that occur when dance music is done wrong. Ditto for “Hungry Child”.
Indeed, nothing from the rest of the album matches the heights of its opening trilogy (with the exception perhaps of the sacrilegious jam keyed to a bouncing piano hook that is “No God”). Hot Chip do keep things “Positive”, maintaining a warm glow to their music that’s so colourful throughout it could spark synesthesia as you’re listening. But they don’t land enough solid hooks or memorable melodies to provide returning sustenance for the music fan.
They’ve become masters at mood rather than songcraft. That mood may be frequently uplifting, but it’s not as rich as their best moments from The Warning and Made in the Dark. And it’s a mood that frustratingly denies reality: they intended this album as respite from the dark political moment, and hence made it ultra-colourful – yes, rather like bathing in ecstasy.
Bathing in ecstasy is all very nice and well whilst it lasts. But it’s impossible to maintain; there must be a comedown. Hot Chip’s refusal to fully face this reality ultimately leaves A Bath Full of Ecstasy as a deflating experience, despite the joy and wonder of its first three songs in particular.