Hercules and Love Affair – Hercules and Love Affair (DFA, 2008)
This Hercules and Love Affair album seems to have divided opinion somewhat, but I have to confess at the outset that I’m all in favour. Plainly and simply, I’m too young to have experienced disco first hand. I’d like to think that in a previous life, I was in those NYC clubs brave enough to get Arthur Russell when he was actually alive and making music. Unfortunately, I’d no doubt have lacked the confidence to embrace the hedonistic, polysexual aesthetic recaptured by Andrew Butler and his clan here, but so brilliantly does this album encapsulate a particular time and place that I come away from it feeling that vicarious experience might actually be enough. ‘Hercules and Love Affair’ is a record to fuel imagination and fantasy as much as dancing feet.
This all begs the question of why I appreciate a meticulous reconstruction of disco more than, say, Stereophonics and their lumbering recreation of 1970s meat-and-two-veg rock? Perhaps it’s because 70s rock has been slavishly revived far too frequently, whilst very few have actually been brave enough to return to disco. It’s a form of music too often dismissed as novelty (and captured accordingly on various nostalgia compilations) rather than appreciated as a revolutionary, liberating force. There have been disco influences on modern pop tracks for sure – but these have often been inappropriately diluted or even anodyne. Similarly, the disco elements incorporated by the new wave of punk-funk acts are often merely traces, much of the original groove surgically removed and replaced with something more awkward and unconfident.
With ‘Hercules and Love Affair’, Andrew Butler successfully recaptures the spirit of disco but he is not striving to sound like Chic or Rose Royce, and certainly not like The Bee Gees circa Saturday Night Fever. The signposts here are early Grace Jones, Arthur Russell and Dinosaur L, Francois Kervorkian, and the Ze Records output. All the key elements are here – including the relentless and deceptively simple backbeats, the octave bass figures, punctuating horns and keyboard lines that serve more to add texture and atmosphere than to state harmony. The most irresistible track here is ‘Hercules Theme’, a heady mix of sensual horns, rhythmic clavinet playing and intriguing intertwined vocals.
There’s no point in denying that Butler’s construct is as much about image and aesthetics as it is about music. On paper, Hercules and Love Affair seem like a collective assembled by a liberal hipster committee – there’s a hip producer musically trained by associates of composer Philip Glass, and there’s also the vocal duo of Kim Ann and Nomi, lesbian and transsexual respectively. The very line-up of the group seems designed to sum up the inclusive and celebratory vision of disco, a movement that genuinely refused to recognise boundaries.
The main selling point for many, but no doubt also a big turn-off for numerous others, will be the presence here of the increasingly ubiquitous Antony Hegarty. Is his tremulous torch-song vibrato starting to wear thin? It’s certainly possible to make the case, but Hercules and Love Affair presents such a radically different context for his singing style that, to my ears at least, he begins to assume a new soulfulness. He proves surprisingly malleable as a backing vocalist, melding effortlessly into the mesmerising vocal textures on ‘Hercules Theme’ and supporting the other vocalists on ‘You Belong’. When he does take the lead, he does so spectacularly, his dynamic variety providing a fascinating counterpoint to the repetitive insistence of the music on ‘Raise Me Up’ and ‘Blind’.
The former seems to restate traditional themes of disco – empowerment, elevation and transcendence. The latter is something entirely different though, and is already looking like one of the finest singles of 2008. It’s that rarest of beasts – an introverted, almost solipsistic dance track. Musically, it has that inspired collective energy that fuels all four-to-the-floor club tracks, but lyrically and vocally, it seems to occupy a space entirely divorced from the dancefloor. Rather than exhibiting glamour or frivolous pleasure, ‘Blind’ seems to be a song about the loss of innocence that accompanies ageing, and the sense that experience can be limiting as well as liberating. Butler’s form of freedom clearly does not require an escape from internalisation and philosophising.
It’s also worth recognising that ‘Hercules and Love Affair’ isn’t all dancefloor pacing. The slinkier grooves of more mysterious opener ‘Time Will’ hint at some of the quirkier, less familiar-sounding electro to be found in the album’s more adventurous second half. Similarly, ‘You Belong’ seems closer to more reflective late 80s Chicago club music (particularly Inner City) than anything from the late 70s disco explosion. The consistent thread across the album is a keening, very human expression of emotion and sentiment sometimes absent from mechanistic dance music, even from funk, which tends to focus purely on sexual impulses. Butler claims to have been inspired more by ‘Miss Piggy, my friends, LSD, classic dance music and feminine power’. Authenticity, it appears, really is overrated.