'Automaton' sees Jamiroquai returning with a new electronic sound; a reinvention that pays off very well indeed.
As the pioneers of the now arguably defunct acid jazz genre and led by a hyperactive frontman in possession of a honeyed Stevie Wonder-esque soul voice and several increasingly outlandish hats (along with an ever-shifting band of comparatively anonymous personnel), it now seems utterly remarkable to think of Jamiroquai as the world-straddling gargantuan hit machine they were in the ’90s and ’00s. Then again, it’s perhaps not remarkable at all: bandleader Jay Kay’s gift for winning melodies, funk grooves, and lyrics full of environmental concerns and worries was always an enticing prospect and evidently ripe for a return in the uncertainty of nowadays. Nevertheless, Automaton isn’t Jamiroquai’s first comeback in recent years: while commercially and critically successful, 2010’s Rock Dust Light Star remained resolutely in the band’s comfortable wheelhouse of funk and soul without really lingering in the mind since.
By contrast, ‘Automaton’ initially sounds very different, even if it does share the same DNA. Whilst the band has included electronic elements before – 2005’s ‘Feels Like It Should,’ for example – the degree to which such a sound is embraced here is definitely new, with the track incredibly reminiscent of Justice and earlier Daft Punk mainly in the funky synth bass grooves and vocoder snippets. Given Jamiroquai historically has been so ingrained in organic elements this is initially a bit disconcerting yet, in honesty, it mostly works very well. Much of this is due to Kay himself: for every spacey synth burble and clipped dance beat, he keeps the song mostly on track and propulsive, especially with a genuinely uproarious chorus that sounds familiarly Jamiroquai-like and inventively new. Although not the catchiest chorus Jamiroquai has ever written, it is still lovely.
There are elements of clear struggle, like insistent vocoder warbles that sound at times awkwardly like Cher’s infamous ‘Believe.’ Likewise, the middle 8 ‘breakdown’ section falls with good intentions into a hip-hop-cum-Kraftwerk blueprint that just sounds weird, with the sudden inclusion of clipped funk guitar chords meshing unusually with the heavy synth beats and Kay’s unexpected rapping. Nonetheless, while you could accuse Kay and the band of chasing trends, this single remains inventive and enjoyable, and its best elements still work surprisingly well within the context of the music video, which features Kay wandering around an American desert landscape and underground sewers with – what else? – an increasingly futuristic hat perched on top of his head.
However, despite these occasionally odd elements, ‘Automaton’ hangs together surprisingly admirably, boding well for Jamiroquai’s upcoming comeback record of the same name. Despite their familiarity, it’s quite comforting to see Jamiroquai not only experiment but still make it work within their frameworks. Therefore, fingers are crossed for their album to deliver on this promise.
‘Automaton’ is out now via Virgin EMI