Taking a chance and changing involves risk, you know? And for a band, it involves a whole lot of risk, especially if said band is a critically-acclaimed outfit crafting their much-anticipated second album. And yet, when a chance pays off, all those risks were worth the taking.
Happily, all the chances Childhood took on the path to second album, Universal High, were worth it. The new album, out Friday via Marathon Artists, is, admittedly, a bit of a stylistic shift into new territory but the material is so wonderfully melodic and -- to use an overused word -- "soulful" that only the most churlish of fans could fault Ben Romans-Hopcraft and the rest of the band for taking the big risks that have been taken here.
As soon as the record starts, with the smooth Brothers Johnson-like Seventies soul-pop of "A.M.D.", a fan could be forgiven for being surprised by the shift from, say, "Solemn Skies" on 2014 debut LP Lacuna to this but, really, the progression feels entirely natural, with the band laying down a supple groove as Ben Romans-Hopcraft coos like Prince on this and other cuts here. The buoyant first single "Californian Light" positively bounces out of the speakers before the sublime "Cameo" makes its appearance. Ben drops into the track, near spoken word-style, before the big chorus bursts forth, sonic sunshine out of your speakers. The effect is a transcendent one and it's one of those moments that feels entirely familiar, a welcomed holdover from the first era of this band's career when big-with-a-capital-"B"-moments graced early singles like "Haltija" and "Pinballs", early bits of 21st century indie-pop that got this lot briefly labelled a bunch of proto-shoegazers.
Of course, there are loads of more conventional pleasures on Universal High -- the fuzzy "Melody Says" and the roughly anthemic "Too Old For My Tears" -- but it is the future soul of stuff like the title track here that thoroughly captivates, the effect on this one a stunning and breathtaking one that reminded me what it was like hearing "Blue Velvet" for the first time back in 2012. Still, for every similar big moment in something like "Don't Have Me Back", there are more subtle charms to be found throughout Universal High -- the nods to the futuristic soul of A.R. Kane I can hear in "Understanding", the Serge Gainsbourg-covers-Barry White groove of "Nothing Ever Seems Right" -- and those charms seem very distinct from what the band offered some 4 or 5 years ago on their early singles. And yet, what captivates here as "new" for this band still sounds like evidence of the altogether-natural progression this band needed to make because if album closer "Monitor", for example, echoes about a half-dozen acts (Hall and Oates, O.M.D., Japan, The Associates, Donna Summer, Pulp), it echoes them in a way that doesn't feel like a band trying on a bunch of new hats for the heck of it. What we can hear is something organic, something true, and -- dare I say it again? -- soulful. And it's soulful in the way that pop music was in the era when Prince could pull off something like "Pop Life", or even earlier, when Curtis Mayfield was dropping rock licks into tracks like "Future Shock", and Bowie was sampling the joys of Philly soul on "Young Americans" in the Ford years. Universal High is, similarly, a genre-blending, convention-busting, risky record, but one that will reward attentive listeners who are ready to embrace music like this.
Childhood -- Ben Romans Hopcraft, Leo Dobsen, Jonny Williams, Max Fantin, and Thomas Fiquet -- are to be commended for taking so many chances here. And they're to be praised for pulling off so many so well. The whole "difficult second album" trope is famous for a reason and that reason is that bands have been too ambitious, too soon. Wisely, the fellows in Childhood keep things grounded, no one getting any idea that they needed to re-invent things here. And yet, they have re-invented something. For every fan that the band loses because nothing on Universal High sounds just like "Blue Velvet", they'll gain another 5 because of the fresh currency of what's here. The sound is the foundation of a new sub-genre, something that blends Seventies soul with Eighties New Wave via an approach from the world of modern indie. Universal High is flat-out superb, and this wildly tuneful and wonderfully lush record is an easy contender for one of the best releases of 2017, for sure.
[Photos: Joyce Ng]