“Pop music ought to be about the present tense”, wrote Simon Reyolds the introduction to his 2011 book Retromania. “The essence of pop”, the paragraph continues, “is the exhortation to ‘be here now’, meaning both ‘live like there’s no tomorrow’ and ‘shed the shackles of yesterday’”. In “the domain of the young”, as he puts it, today is all they’ve got. So how then, do you go about making a pop album for young people when it feels less and less like there’s a ‘here and now’ to be had?
This is the question that Elderbrook’s debut ‘Why Do We Shake in the Cold?’ struggles to come to terms with. Real name Alexander Kotz, the London-based producer and songwriter in the past has channeled the disorientation of the dancefloor to worldwide success. Now there’s no dancefloor to sing about, though strangely that hasn’t stopped Kotz from making vague references to ‘the night’ as if clubbing in 2020 is carrying on business as usual.
Charli XCX’s ‘how i’m feeling now’ – the high-water mark for lockdown era pop – tackled the absurdity of making club bangers for living rooms by grasping the nettle and singing about exactly that: “I just wanna go to parties / Up high, wanna feel the heat from all the bodies”. Meanwhile Kotz’s 'Back To My Bed', though (thankfully) not a come-hither style invitation, is however a boilerplate dance-pop cut about keeping the night out going: “‘Cause the voice in my head said I ain’t going back to my bed”. The opening lines on 'Take A Minute' (“Well, the days keep floating away / Don’t you wish that they don’t?”) are the closest the album comes to placing us in the present, before shifting into a break-up song that could’ve easily been released any year in the past decade – apart from maybe this one.
The more we delve into ‘Why Do We Shake…’, the harder it becomes to justify Kotz’s insistence in writing exclusively vocal-driven dance music. Lyrics range from the bland on 'I’m A Fool' and 'All My Love' (whose hooks are, you guessed it, “I’m a fool for you” and “I’ll give you all my love”) to the downright bizarre; album lowpoint 'My House' holds the undesirable title of having the most obnoxious instrumental and alienating subject. Giving you his best Empire of the Sun impression, Kotz brags about the size of his house that’s “better than all your hand-me-down toys” as synth keys stab randomly into the mix. There’s a slim chance the song is actually an ironic takedown of consumerism á la Rina Sawayama’s “XS”, but the conviction with which Kotz delivers the line “And I know you are, but what am I?” leaves me with little hope.
It’s towards the end of the record that Kotz’s potential as a producer really begins to shine. 'Set Fire To My Gun' unfortunately suffers from similarly baffling lyrical choices, balancing an innocuous chorus (“Show a little love / Come and give it up / Show a little love…”) with an opening verse taken straight from the death metal songbook (“She set fire to my gun / She killed everyone / She’s burn on my tongue / The black in my lungs”). But once the vocals give way at around the halfway mark, we’re blissfully carried off on a bed of lush bass tones. The title track follows a similar trajectory, transitioning into a superbly arranged tech-house break, all with the added benefit of having lyrics that are, if not earth-shattering, perfectly serviceable.
Before trying his hand at electronic dance music, Kotz cut his teeth on London’s indie rock circuit, before going solo as a folk singer-songwriter. It’s probably from here that his reluctance to rely solely on instrumentals stems from, but if the highpoints of ‘Why Do We Shake…’ are anything to go by, it’s as a producer, not a vocalist, that his true calling lies.
Words: Sidney Franklyn
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