A solid addition to The Chemical Brothers' catalogue.
But this actually isn't a story of a veteran act's slow slide into irrelevancy. Rowlands and Simons have been making some interesting music in the past ten years. After they'd hit consecutive low points with the confused and sometimes bizarre Push The Button, from 2004, and We Are The Night, released in 2007, they returned in 2010 with a fresh angle. Further moved past the duo's long-established formula of high-profile guests and noisy crossover attempts by focussing on mood and coherency. Most of the classic Chems tropes were still there—overdriven synths, '60s psychedelia influences, clattering drums—but the album visited different styles while maintaining a hazy but hopeful tone that got under the skin. Albums like this and the more vocal-heavy Born In The Echoes could never hope to capture the imagination like Surrender or Dig Your Own Hole, but they had some evolutionary momentum that made The Chemical Brothers worth sticking with.
In the text accompanying the album on Apple Music, Rowlands said something that set alarm bells ringing: they'd set up a "1997 corner" in the studio where they placed samplers they used back then, with the aim of using the equipment's limitations to capture some of the old studio magic. In other words, a classic "return to the source" move from a legacy act, which often ends up with bad versions of old music. But No Geography isn't a retreat to the sound we once called big beat. What we get is ten pop-laced dance tracks, drawn mostly from electronic sound sources and samples, that often explode with joy and colour. There are nods to the current Western political moment ("MAH" in particular), but No Geography is a 46-minute invitation to let go.
If you're anything like me, your willingness to go with Rowlands and Simons might waver along the way, but the album's first half will feel like a breeze. It's here we meet Aurora, the young Norwegian pop singer who appears on three tracks. Her robotized voice is the first thing you hear on No Geography, and it sets in motion a breathless run of four tracks that includes perky LCD Soundsystem-style punk-funk ("Eve Of Destruction"), emotive breakbeat ("No Geography") and loopy percussive disco ("Bango"). When it arrives, the moment of relative calm is just as effective: "Gravity Drops" may have a punchy breakbeat at its core and feature at least one massive snare roll, but the lush synth chords push a gentle, ethereal tenor.
With any Chemical Brothers record, you have to be prepared for Rowlands and Simons to push things too far, although the missteps here are mostly isolated to the final two tracks. The screeching synths on "MAH" sound like a shoddy impression of themselves, while the samples on "Catch Me I'm Falling" close the album on a soppy note that doesn't speak to the experiences before then.
Overall, though, No Geography pushes right up to the line but doesn't cross it. The third Aurora collaboration, "The Universe Sent Me," is a nice example, where her rounded vocal tones and the emotion in the synths are grounding forces amidst all of the distortion. (It's unsurprising she appears on three tracks—Aurora has obvious creative chemistry with Rowlands and Simons.) The mashup of a soul sample and an aggressive, acidic breakbeat on "We've Got To Try" is a touch cheesy, but it speaks to the gusto and freedom with which Rowlands and Simons seem to have approached this record. Rowlands also mentioned that "We've Got To Try" reminded him of the DJ sets they used to play at the much talked-about parties at The Social in London. There is definitely a little nostalgia for the Chemical Brothers' past about the track, but it illustrates how the duo seem to have tapped into something from their past and used it to move forwards. At this stage in their career that's impressive.