It’s near impossible to see Hot Chip as stuck in neutral when their lyrics reflect such earnest hopefulness.
In retrospect, Hot Chip’s In Our Heads seems like a major turning point for a band that once had been content to make 8-bit songs about Kraft dinners. The thoughtful reverence of that album, their fifth effort, showed their readiness to chime in on big, soul-searching issues related to meaning and devotion.
Two albums and seven years later, A Bath Full of Ecstasy continues the trajectory of In Our Heads by getting philosophical and even mystical. This is a particularly interesting approach in the era of Trump and Brexit, since the group purposely avoids writing songs that directly confront political issues. Instead, they focus on how social interaction might help people transcend the problems of the contemporary moment. Lyrically, this provides a refreshing approach, even though their sonic palette has begun to grow slightly tired and repetitive.
Listeners will hear the social emphasis most clearly on tracks like “Positive,” which describes how time together with friends can combat depression and self-loathing. “We get together sometimes/ And talk about how we used to get together sometimes,” the chorus goes. The song argues that togetherness matters on a deep level, that we can actually help each other. In this way, it seems a direct response to lead vocalist Alexis Taylor’s recent solo work, which has revealed him to be Hot Chip’s most melancholy member. Here, his gentle tenor wonderfully intertwines with Joe Goddard’s teddy bear-itone as a riposte to loneliness.
A thematically related strategy on A Bath Full of Ecstasy involves enlisting the help of outside producers Philippe Zdar and Rodaidh McDonald, who have worked with artists like Phoenix and Sampha, respectively. This marks the first time that Hot Chip has sought help in expanding their sound, and we hear the result most clearly in brief but exultant moments of meditation. “Clear Blue Skies,” for example, channels Four Tet in its minimalist opening, while “Bath Full of Ecstasy” uses the bridge to let its guitar sounds reverberate broadly, as if they were echoing out from a blossoming garden sanctuary.
Nevertheless, these moments aren’t enough to fully move Hot Chip out of their musical comfort zone or merit the album’s psychedelic title. A Bath Full of Ecstasy just isn’t quite weird enough to feel like a trip. Fans will be happy to experience the out-of-body feeling that they’ve always been able to enjoy while listening to Hot Chip—the kind of feeling that results from gloriously dancing and singing along to the group’s sweet, infectious melodies. “Leave your past behind/ Just an echo of an echo,” goes one particularly effective earworm of a hook on “Echo.” It’s to Hot Chip’s credit that they make such top-shelf songwriting seem effortless, but the group also seems just a little stuck in the synth-pop, house-y sound that’s been their bread and butter across their oeuvre.
Hot Chip’s small but notable musical innovations could still seem to unlock new levels of pop sophistication as recently as their last LP, 2015’s Why Make Sense?, but 19 years of working together has propelled their sound towards the electro equivalent of dad rock. They also show how dad rock can be a positive term. These actual dads—Taylor and Goddard each have kids of their own—use their aesthetic as a backdrop for compassion and community. It’s near impossible to see them as stuck in neutral when their lyrics reflect such earnest hopefulness.
“No god, no light/ No voice, no sight/ No dream, no sign/ Can make me feel the way you make me feel,” Hot Chip attests on “No God” as the album comes to its end. We recognize its set of musical motifs from any number of Hot Chip songs: looping piano chords, soaring synthesizer build-up, cowbell percussion. But the song, and A Bath Full of Ecstasy as a whole, still feels like pure revelation: their music makes it seem like a better world could actually be on the horizon. What more could we hope for from a group that’s grown up, endured and grooved its way through all the perils of our young century?