In a world of superhero TV shows connected with superhero movies connected with superhero comics, Tarantino films about films about films, and pop hits that set legal precedent as they imitate the “feel” of classics, “recycled” is no longer an epithet of any meaning when applied to art. Some cultural works mine the past for the cynical purpose of not having to make anything original, and some do it for the clever purpose of using what’s come before to create something that’s actually new. But the mere fact of having reused something, it would seem, is value neutral: A work of art is neither good nor bad merely because it looks back.
You have to keep this in mind when reading about music these days, and especially when evaluating the acclaim surrounding Jamie xx’s new album, In Colour. A lovely New Yorker essay last month by Hua Hsu pointed to the 1999 experimental film Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore as a decoder for the work of Jamie Smith, who’s half of the successful indie-rock act The xx and who’s worked on songs for Drake, Rihanna, and Gil Scott Heron. That film itself was a pastiche of footage from three decades of nightclub dancing, from 70s discoteques to 90s warehouse raves, and its woozy, nocturnal score captures something about the emotions of dance culture rather than imitating the actual sound of it. Like that film, Smith’s music looks back at dance heydays from before his time without aping them.
I’m not well acquainted with UK rave history, and reading Hsu’s piece after spending some time within In Colour was a bit of a revelation. The synthesizer that beams through the spookily gorgeous opener “Gosh,” it turns out, “recalls the melody of the 1991 rave anthem ‘Belfast,’ by Orbital” and the vocal sample that gives that song its title comes from an unaired BBC radio show about underground dance music. The rest of the album is peppered with similar references. Hsu calls In Colour Smith’s “homage to club culture—or a version of it that you might imagine if you’ve arrived a few years late, after the pirate radio stations have been shuttered and the legendary after-hours spot has been converted into condos.”