, March 14th, 2017 11:16
Few records surge into focus with the immediacy or intent of Dutch Uncles’ latest. An emphatic, bass-driven prog-pop gem, the title track and ultra-confident lead single from their fifth studio album Big Balloon doubles up as a concise blueprint of Greater Manchester’s finest shoulder-padded foursome’s continued upward trajectory.
In much the same way the likes of Field Music and Deerhoof dream up wondrous realms where complexity is usually at the hands of the hook, Dutch Uncles’ propensity for warping pop to the outer fringes of possibility has always felt akin to the quest for absolute inimitability. Refining their heady whirl of synth, strings, syncopated bass patterns, polyrhythmic twists and turns and the cryptic lyrical panache of Duncan Wallis, Big Balloon is a feat that, despite all its clever machinations, puts cutting loose and letting go centre-stage.
Doffing its cap to everything from Kate Bush's The Red Shoes to eastern European techno and Low-era Bowie, certain tracks here sound like fist-clenched themes from some far-flung future gameshow. Take the propulsive wallop of the title track or the slick, strutting bombast of ‘Baskin’’ (an early highlight that sees economy, groove and complexity meld in fine fashion): these are exigent mini-masterstrokes that betray the carefully-considered manoeuvrings of an outfit that still don’t entertain any notions of kneejerk process.
Where the quasi-orchestral backbone of 2015’s O Shudder worked – and worked well – the subtle philharmonic undertones on Big Balloon thrive thanks to the slick synthesis with the band’s slinking prog-tinged pop throwdowns. Where groove-laden peaks ‘Combo Box’ (with its cunning nod to Bowie’s ‘Fame’) and the triumphant ‘Streetlight’ prove inspired and worthy of a quick repeated listen, the symphonic élan underlying muted masterstroke ‘Achameleon’, ‘Sink’ and closer ‘Overton’ reveal the inner workings of a band whose daring diversity mirrors their resistance to boxing themselves in.
Lyrically, Wallis is as wilfully cryptic as ever, weaving misty, masterful tales of ambiguity with moments of out-and-out self-acceptance. Having said the title track – which touches upon a life on antidepressants – is a song about “being content with who you are”, there is a real sense of personal immunity threaded throughout the album. Indeed, analogous to the aplomb of the trio that provide such a solid foundation for his words, Wallis is a beacon that burns bright throughout Big Balloon, giving away everything and nothing at all.
Where some calls for more variety amongst the virtuosity here aren’t entirely without merit, the finesse of Dutch Uncles uniquely emboldened pop craft is arguably without comparison at present. As they approach their tenth year, their latest – and surely greatest – release to date is a consistently fascinating tour de force from a band whose quest for perfect individuality continues to be a joy to behold.