It’s always a pleasure when a great of the past returns with not only a work that stands mightily among their storied discography but also comfortably within the contemporary music of its time. We invest artists with the anxieties of the stages of our lives: in youth, we view the young displacing the artists of old as a statement of our inherent and underestimated value; in middle age, we see reinvention as a signifier that we are not doomed to be left behind in the mouldering decades of the world beyond pure youth; in senescence, we view returning heroes as validation that legacy matters, that works are not simply forgotten and passed over. These are powerful dramas, certainly, and ones that reflect the psychological interiors of ourselves as both artists and bare humans. But they also place quite often too high a burden upon work that seeks merely to exist and evoke.
DNA seems to be comfortably devoid of any of these anxieties. This is Cerrone‘s 27th solo record, delivered to us nearly 50 years into his career. In the past several decades, he’s gone from one of the kinds of Euro-disco, in fact one of the very few to have a strong crossover appeal in the U.S. thanks to the intervention of Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records, to being virtually unknown outside of crate-diggers and those invested in the history of the genre. But, again, while it is tempting in some venal writerly way to dive into the unabashedly great body of work that this record joins, DNA itself feels resolutely modern, unhindered, free. If the name were different, it could pass as a contemporary electronica debut, with the European statues astride an open window to outer space feeling like as pure a gesture to vaporwave as you can get without rendering the whole thing in late ’80s 3D imagery and superimposed N64 logos. The music itself matches the image on the cover keenly: clean, bright and spacious, like the portion of a sci-fi film where the protagonist is lifted through the blue window into the polydimensional manifold that encompasses our reality.
DNA maintains the disciplined tightness of Cerrone’s work, one clear element of formal continuity that he’s maintained rigorously over his career. The set tops out at nine tracks and clocks in at just under 50 minutes, avoiding the at-times tiresome electronic cliche of endless sheets of unchanging beats, replacing it for the pop melodic and harmonic sensibilities of disco applied to house music rhythms. And why shouldn’t he? House music, after all, is just an evolved form of disco, a way of fusing the technological gains of the ’80s and beyond as a means of doing away with needing the endless battalions of strings and horns and typical rock band instrumentation to pull off a solid disco tune. Cerrone clearly views modern advances both in technologies, timbres and compositional approaches not as a hindrance to some esoteric “purity” of the genre he loves but as evolutionary advances, things to be embraced and explored. The serene pleasure he must feel as a man nearing his seventh decade of life watching the music he loved and devoted his life to continue to grow and change feels palpable in the set, which embrace a very 21st-century cosmic ethos of house music that feels substantially more millennial or even zoomer than one would attribute to someone of his age.
There are, naturally, boundless grooves all over the record. Cerrone, after all, isn’t just a disco legend but a drummer, one who learned and explored other instruments and even the whole realm of songwriting seemingly as an extension of that very devotion to the groove, that immortal Platonic ideal that exists outside of and erupts into music of any genre. Disco has always been a keen balancing act, one attempting to blend both the harmonic complexity of pop at its finest and tautest with hyper-approachable mind-numbing grooves, ones which maintain their pure physicality even when coked out of your mind at 3 a.m. on a dancefloor. It seems impossible to put on DNA at the volume it calls for (loud) and not find yourself moving. The man has spent decades crafting undeniable grooves and hooks to go along with them and it shows; DNA is a triumph of house music, pure and encompassing, like a singularity of dance.
Perhaps this comes from the fact that, being a drummer, Cerrone doesn’t sequence or grid his drums but instead plays them live, albeit on an electric kit. His sense of time is impeccable and the way that as a real living drummer he can push and pull time in subtle ways. This is, ultimately, the only way to create real groove, investing a humanity and pulse into otherwise mere metronomic tick-tocking. Beyond the synths, beyond the hyperspatial cosmicism, beyond the perpetual modernity, that’s what DNA is about, a boundlessness of humanity via groove. Like any great dance music record should be.
Label: Because Music
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.