ig Beat was electronic music’s Cock Rock—an unthinking, debauched hulk of anthems dedicated to fucking. (Think about it.) It didn’t bother with emotional gradation or poise; it wasn’t there to make you think. The beats were deep, the crowd agitated to an ensemble sweat bordering on coitus. The DJ the ringmaster, his decks the … well, you get it: fucking. Nowadays, a kind of Puritan admiration has swept over electronic music: the musicians are nothing but emotional, either through nostalgic devices (DFA artists’ resurrection of the 70’s dance ethos) or more complex ones (Boards of Canada). Big Beat has been left addled, either trying to unsuccessfully resurrect the halcyon days (Prodigy) or, like Junkie XL, trying to prove that it was all more than just raver tease.
Today is a culmination of sorts for Junkie (Tom Holkenborg). Moving from the muscular Big Beat of Saturday Teenage Kick and Sounds of the Big Drags, to the star-studded Radio JXL, Today is his first album in the true sense of the word. Sure, Radio JXL had a ton of guest artists: from David Gahan, Gary Numan, and Grant Hall to Solomon Burke(!), Chuck D, and Peter Tosh, which helped to give it something his previous work had been missing. But the wide variety of vocalists made it sound exactly like what it’s title implied: a radio station of vocalists, offering their own particular takes over Holkenborg’s beats.
Those vocal contributions are absent from JXL’s latest, leading him to fill in more of the emotional vacuum himself. He still has crutches, though: this time around they’re electric guitar samples. Instead of making the album sound more organic, the instrument’s ubiquity merely saddles the album with a small emotive range: the quasi-contemplative beat-maker and his Euro vocalist. The latter merely spouts feel-good pabulum like “Whisper to me / And breathe into my veins / And believe in magic / To wash away the stains / And it feels like today / So just hold on tight and let it slip away.” This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’ve never done E. Strangely enough I found myself equally as embarrassed by the music when the vocals aren’t used at all (“I’ve Got a Xerox to Copy” and especially “Such a Tease”) since there aren’t any discernible emotional shifts, much less an emotional pull.
JXL, as you might expect, does his best work on the 12”: the extended versions of both “Today” and “Youthful” are tolerable, if not somewhat enjoyable. The compressed nature of the rest of the album—songs average around four minutes each—doesn’t offer him the length found on prior work, though. “Drift Away” is a moderate success, as you can tell he has noticeably altered the sonic background to fit the vocalist, changing the bass line and drum pattern for the chorus, and “Yesterdays” could be decent if he just junked the electric guitar loops. The acoustic and string loops on “Honey,” rather than rendering the song emotional, end up as electronic bromides.
Like other DJs that have tried their hand at making albums (anyone remember Oakenfold’s Bunnka?) JXL’s Today falls short simply because he hasn’t cultivated the right tools. His career has been dedicated to club heaviness, noise, and frenzy. JXL is great at screaming through megaphones, it’s the singing and the whispering that’s the hard part.