Hot Chip Hones the Meaning of ‘Ecstasy’

The great dance band’s seventh album, A Bath Full of Ecstasy, delivers pleasure while questioning it.

A press image of Hot Chip
For the band’s seventh album, the members dabbled with new means of straightforwardness. (Ronald Dick)

A recent Hot Chip music video portrays a bickering bohemian L.A. couple who, mysteriously, find that the band’s single “Hungry Child” is playing on loop in their life. It follows them wherever they go—taxis, therapy—and is audible to those around them. This is torture. “I hate house music!” a passerby on the street screams, and the couple seem to agree with him.

The video is funny, but preposterous—and not just for its surreal concept. Ever since “Hungry Child” was released, in early April, I have had it on something approaching endless loop, and it’s only improved my life. Sure, it hasn’t been following me around, but the song’s so good that it’s hard not to dislike the video’s (already obnoxious) characters for never taking a moment to try to enjoy what they’re hearing. It’s almost like Hot Chip’s subverting its own song, shy about its power.

Listeners familiar with Hot Chip probably wouldn’t tag the group simply as “house music.” The U.K. quintet, which has been making music since 2000, more often gets described with an indie- or alternative- before a pop or an electronic or a rock. How to define words like alternative remains a mystery, but maybe the “Hungry Child” video offers a clue. As pure music, the genres Hot Chip works in are visceral and body-oriented. But the cultural stream it’s swimming in, the indie or alt one, has a skewed relationship to pleasure. Its practitioners are always wrestling with—inspecting, questioning, counterbalancing—the impulse to let go and dance.

Early-career landmarks such as 2006’s The Warning dreamed up idiosyncratic rock informed by R&B and rap—Destiny’s Child and the Beastie Boys were touchstones—but the band moved definitively toward disco and rave music starting with the 2012 triumph In Our Heads. In either era, bright blocks of synths have crashed and rearranged like Tetris pieces. Skippy, anxious rhythms alternate with autobahn-driving smoothness. Alexis Taylor croons in a high, understanding tremble, and Joe Goddard offers plummy, sad ballast. Often they’re singing about music itself. “Over and over / like a monkey with a miniature cymbal,” went the band’s signature 2006 single, an ode to repetition.

For A Bath Full of Ecstasy, the band’s seventh album, the members dabbled with new means of straightforwardness. Participating in writing sessions for Katy Perry’s last album resulted in some tracks for this one. For the first time in the group’s history, as well, it brought in outside producers, including Philippe Zdar of the influential French house duo Cassius. (Tragically, Zdar died in the same week that A Bath Full of Ecstasy and Cassius’s album Dreems were released.) The less-insular approach helps explain the success of a song like “Hungry Child.” It’s not quite subverting any of the dance tropes it wrangles, including wristwatch ticktocks; crest-and-ebb dynamics; gospel breakdowns; and raw, desperate pleas of desire in the lyrics. But the band’s employing them extremely well, piecing them together with a jeweler’s eye.

The group has been cagey about whether the title A Bath Full of Ecstasy refers to drug use, but in any reading, it suits the music. Hot Chip knows that ecstasy doesn’t always mean an overjoyed high; it can entail equanimity, kinship, and being present. The bath visual fits all the sonic details that seem to bubble and fizz, and many passages of the songs impart the sensation of dunking and resurfacing. On the warmhearted stunner of an opener, “Melody of Love,” electronic air pockets head upward as piano chords give a falling feeling. A trio of songs at the end of the album cruise on metronomic rhythms and a froth of keyboards and guitar: the whirlpool-in-the-hotel-room comedown.

Between those soaks, the band reasserts its experimental-pop prowess as it flirts and parries with the saccharine. “Spell” arrives as clenched, paranoid funk but loosens up with choruses whose interlocking refrains might make you think of a cage of butterflies being opened. The title track saunters softly like a Fleetwood Mac tune, and its karaoke potential is complicated by oh so tender vocal effects. The sleeper hit could be “Positive,” whose sleek-sounding and socially conscious verses address someone who’s unfairly “despised, contaminated, defeated, isolated.” Then comes the hook, with Goddard irresistibly chanting, “We get together sometimes / talk about how we used to get together sometimes.” It’s tough to know exactly how the various lyrical concepts of the song relate. But Hot Chip is ineffably doing something new with classic dynamics—a down into an up, and an up laced with down.

The words on A Bath Full of Ecstasy ask the listener to stop and simply appreciate—“All you need is here / it’s moving in the air,” goes the first song—even while asserting the difficulty of doing so. “If I call myself a rational man, I know that this means nothing at all,” Goddard sings on “Clear Blue Skies,” a love song. But his band has all along lived with the paradoxes of pleasure, and the rational proof is right there: It feels good to let music like this move you.