Rare is the synth pop act that chooses to remain one throughout its career. Since the early ’80s, when synthesizers and programmed beats became the norm in new wave pop music, frustrated synth jockeys have turned to analog instrumentation as a means of creating a little breathing room. New Order made a habit of breaking from floppy disk beats every couple albums or so, most notably on 1986′s Brotherhood, essentially a showcase for Bernard Sumner’s scratchy guitar jangle, and a refreshing one at that. Their peers in Depeche Mode, likewise, found themselves recording far more guitar tracks than usual on 1993′s underrated Songs of Faith and Devotion, and generally made a point of distancing themselves from “Just Can’t Get Enough,” even if subliminally, with each subsequent release. The inverse is also true; see: Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. But even those who find themselves coming home to their circuit-board roots, like Gary Numan, typically still do so after taking a six-string vacation.
Australia’s Cut Copy perfected their heart-on-sleeve blend of new wave and disco on 2008′s In Ghost Colours, but even then, they remained oddly noncommittal about keeping the focus on their electronics. For every “Hearts on Fire,” loaded with chopped up house samples and buzzing synth basslines, there was a “So Haunted,” firing up with distorted guitars and live drums, or “Strangers in the Wind,” which took the band out of Depeche Mode and into Fleetwood Mac. When the band released “Where I’m Going,” the first single from new album Zonoscope, in late 2010, they seemed to signal that guitars might be winning the battle. Still swathed in pretty yet psychedelic layers of samples and keyboards, “Where I’m Going” abandoned the disco lights for whimsically skipping drums, crystal guitar jangle and heavenly vocal harmonies.
While “Where I’m Going” wasn’t 100 percent misdirection, it also isn’t wholly representative of Zonoscope, an album even more diverse and complex than its spectacular predecessor. On this, the band’s third, Cut Copy still straddles the line between pretty and upbeat guitar pop and club-friendly new wave disco, but that line has become even blurrier. For as distant as “Where I’m Going” seems from their ethereal dance tracks like “Out There On the Ice,” it was still a production rich in digital sounds. And as much as “Take Me Now” sounds delightfully like Men at Work’s “Down Under,” in its chorus, it returns to the bright, flashing mirrorball space the group perfected some time ago.
Zonoscope is highly influenced by the music of the ’80s, as were the band’s previous two efforts. The difference is that, here, the band broadens their reach, opting for a more universal and unabashedly vintage pop sound. There are few moments of overt New Order homage here, though later OMD and Tears for Fears seem to play a much bigger role in their repertoire. Don’t be surprised if the massive opening track “Need You Now” reminds you of “If You Leave,” particularly when Dan Whitford’s voice slightly cracks on the choral refrain of “I know we’re going crazy, but I need you now.” And there’s a slight element of Talking Heads funk in the laid back grooves of “Hanging on to Every Heartbeat,” which reveals yet another attractive new side to an already mesmerizing band.
Certainly, Zonoscope shares many similarities with its predecessor, particularly in the more urgent dance numbers like “Pharaohs and Pyramids.” But to pinpoint a specific theme that runs throughout Cut Copy’s discography, it’s that each song emphasizes the importance of now. There’s no time like the present, and it’s made painfully explicit with song titles like “Blink and You’ll Miss a Revolution,” “This Is All We’ve Got” and “Take Me Now.” It sounds a tad fatalistic, but the wonder of Cut Copy is their ability to make that crucial urgency seem magical, romantic even. And when that barrier is broken, as on the spectacular “Corner of the Sky,” phrases like “to the end of time” hold extra weight, turning fleeting moments into immortal pieces of history.
Every much a synth pop band now as they were in 2008, Cut Copy nonetheless have evolved ever so slightly into a more eclectic and playful pop group. Zonoscope has plenty of Easter eggs for music nerds, from Men at Work riffs to the unexpected moments of psych-pop that pop up from time to time. But this is a record for more than just nerds; it’s a statement of universalism, of reveling in the moment and taking something with an expiration date and making it last for what seems like ages. But if that seems too heavy for a dance record built on ’80s guitar cheese and disco synth, then revel in the sheer beauty of this album, a great step forward for a band whose music was already miles ahead of most of their peers.
Stream: Cut Copy “Need You Now”