Part of what's always made Jamie Lidell so compelling is that he's so difficult to pigeonhole.
Too organic to be electronica, too quirky to be soul, too soulful to be indie, his first four studio albums were sprawling, often chaotic affairs—and Lidell himself was the biggest oddity. He earned a reputation early on as a dynamic live performer, looping beat-boxed grooves into his mic and crooning on top, like a one-man electro band or a malfunctioning funk robot. But his ambitions have grown exponentially in the recording studio, his ambition and genre-hopping glee peaking on his 2010 coming-out party, Compass, a left-field stew of indie-art-funktronica.
The critical reception for Compass was sturdy, as usual, but dissenters were put off by the album's high-profile cast of collaborators and producers, including Beck, Feist, and Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor. In many ways, the Compass liner notes nearly overshadowed the music's genius, mad-scientist construction; half the fun was getting lost in the swirl of frayed, delirious funk and soul, but the results often played like a loose mixtape rather than a proper solo album. And with such a huge gang of players and co-writers, it was tough to call it a "solo album" in the first place.
It's fitting, then, that his latest album, scheduled for release on Feb. 19 on Warp, is self-titled. It's the flip side to Compass, organizing the sonic clutter into 11 tight, focused jams that highlight Lidell's vocal prowess and finesse with funkadelic production. That phrasing is no mistake: Though funk has always been a prime ingredient in Lidell's music, he's officially walking the "Atomic Dog" on album five. On Compass, he layered track upon track, groove upon groove upon groove—Lidell alone contributed beat box, synths, piano, drum machine, guitar, drums, and percussion. Here, he focuses on the richest, funkiest essentials: deep-space synth-bass tones, tightly engineered drum grooves, the occasional treble blast of a high-octave electric guitar. This isn't indie funk or pseudo-funk or hipster funk. It's capital-F Funk, the way George Clinton and the gang did it in the '70s.
It's the sound of a very confident musician with a very particular vision. For Lidell, the album was a process of studio immersion. Though British by blood, he'd long been a fixture in New York, recording frequently in his Chelsea apartment. But for Jamie Lidell, he moved to Nashville, built a hi-tech home recording studio, and re-ignited his passion for the funk and dance music of his younger days: Prince, Sly Stone, Cameo, Bobby Brown, and new jack swing. You can hear all those influences bumping uglies on the end product, but Funkadelic remain wonderfully at the forefront, particularly in the album's blaring, Bernie Worrell-esque synthesizer tones.
It's not like funk as a genre is obsolete in modern pop music, but Lidell has inhabited this music with such fervor and period-perfect details, he makes you wonder where it's been hiding all these years. "Do Yourself a Favor" is like Funkadelic reincarnated through one nerdy British white dude, masterful in its precise, patient unfurling of its groove and opening with a sparse, airy synth-bass and drum kit, gradually adding synth pads and massive vocoders. By the time you've reached the extended sugar-rush coda, he's built a metropolis of interlocking rhythms and hooks. "You Know My Name" nestles into a black-hole pocket of futuristic funk, with nuclear-missile synth explosions and jittery slap-bass.
But it's not as if Lidell has lost his eclectic edge. "What a Shame" sounds like a jittery, electro-buzz Compass leftover injected with manic studio propulsion. The spit-shined surfaces of "Big Love" sound dangerously close to Paula Abdul on a Herbie Hancock binge, Lidell crooning himself into a harmonized tizzy over assorted cowbells, tambourines, and cartoonishly bright synths. The album's biggest head-scratcher is the creepy, crawling "why_ya_why," which sounds like a New Orleans brass band marching through electronic sludge. But as a testament to Lidell's newfound focus, it fits into the album's over-arching funk-family tree like an awkward-yet-lovable cousin.
Jamie Lidell serves a variety of purposes. It's a sleek, inventive love-letter to a genre that desperately deserves a modern reboot, and it's the emphatic sound of Lidell reassuming control, sonically, of his music. It's also the finest album this pop oddball has ever made—for everything it attempts and everything it doesn't.