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Joker - The Vision

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Artist: Joker

Album: The Vision

Label: 4AD

Review date: Oct. 31, 2011

There was a time when Liam McLean appeared to have his act together. He hopped quickly from the Kapsize EP to Tectonic 12”s to appearances on the Hyperdub label and in Bloc Party remixes. Then there was the amusing introduction average English citizens got via The Guardian. The man pulled off purple better than anyone since Cam’ron. But like many of his peers, McLean hit a glass ceiling. It can’t be easy living with Plastician shout-outs back in Bristol when you see that andogynous kid from screamo group From First to Last selling out massive venues and trotting continents with Rusko’s brostep.

So, perhaps in noting the inexplicable rise of Skrillex and seeing what Skream and Benga did with Katy B (not to mention Sampha and SBTRKT with Jessie Ware, or any number of belted R&B samples from name-your-favorite here), and being that he’s had a penchant for dirty low-end from the start, Joker has gone and done what most anyone in his position would do out of survival instinct: He’s followed in an effort to get ahead.

The Vision isn’t a greatest hits collection (though it has top-shelf material present) and it isn’t a new way forward (though it feels like it for him). It’s a conservative, often misguided assault on mainstream dance music. Natural’s not in it. Populist is.

It’s not that he hasn’t had vocals in his music before – “Do It” had a wonderfully warped vocal as its hook, after all – but here he’s utilized that increasingly tired, self-perpetuating tactic in places he didn’t need it, as if it were a safeguard against the failure of his music on its own. That’s what’s so annoying about The Vision. Joker’s penchant for songcraft is obvious – anyone who heard the early instrumental version of the title track should have been impressed by its deftly balanced 8-bit blips and hearty bass, not to mention the smartly inserted drop-out as the song rounds the homestretch. Then came the official single from 4AD and, surprise, it’s got Jessie Ware’s vocals all over it. That’s not inherently bad (though the lyrics are chest-puffing fatuousness), but her words gave weight to what was once nebulous, amorphous. Then came the Freddie Gibbs remix, which would have been a cool idea if it didn’t sound so haphazardly conjoined (for, it goes without saying, the American Audience).

The Vision is an appropriate title in at least one way: Joker can see an end point of success, of popular appeal and massive plaudits. He already knows how to get there, but he’s tripping himself up all over the place, second-guessing himself when he shouldn’t. As I’ve alluded, it seems there’s this pervasive theory among dubstep’s Illuminati that if you just get a (preferably female) vocalist out front, you’ve got yourself a fast track to Radio One fame and a world tour with someone else’s checkbook, not to mention potential production work with whomever you want for the foreseeable future. He tries that with “The Vision” and Turboweekend’s Silas Bjerregaard on “Slaughterhouse” and with William Cartwright’s white-guy soul on “On My Mind.” These songs are all corkers on their own; human interference makes them tangible, but it also compartmentalizes them, makes them less devastatingly emotional. It’s over the top.

The guest appearances are heavy, but when Joker (or 4AD) leaves things alone, you get a better picture of how much less desperate this album would’ve sounded if it had just been instrumentals. Here, the expansive, glittering beauty of “Milky Way.” Over here, the buzz n’ squiggle of “Tron” or “My Trance Girl” -- similarly lazy productions, but still effective in conveying what purple was supposed to be about. There’s life in the old glasshouse yet.

Unfortunately, it’s obscured by aimless grabbing at higher aspirations. There’s no inherent problem with Joker’s sound – crushing bass buzz and glitchy 8-bit tricks sound as “now” as anything else going these days. The trouble comes in awkwardly marrying vocalists to unsuitable songs, songs that don’t need them in the first place and don’t feel enriched once they’re stuck with them. The Vision is dubstep’s best example of a shotgun wedding. Smile wide, Liam.

By Patrick Masterson

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