Upon hearing Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” Brian Eno famously guessed that the single would “change club music for the next 15 years.” That bit of fortune-telling, recounted countless times since spoken in 1977, ended up being an understatement. Electronically produced dance music hadn’t even sniffed its cultural peak by 1992. It’s since become youth culture, major festival fodder, and blockbuster mainstream entertainment on a scale that Eno wouldn’t have claimed on his fourth lager. Club walls can no longer confine it. And now, Summer’s iconic producer, Giorgio Moroder, returns as an elder statesman to a pop culture he had a strong hand in shaping.
Even at his hippest point, Moroder was more goofy than glamorous. He dropped super-silly vocoder mantras onto his slickest beats. He gave his tracks dad-joke titles like “Utopia – Me Giorgio.” He rocked a pre-Nintendo Super Mario ‘stache, wrap-around shades, and a white sport coat, looking like somebody’s uncle on a speedboat. But the serious influence of his production style—straight lines moving towards the horizon, fueled by the energy of several coke-lines—is now embedded in pop, dance, rock, and R&B music. Songs he produced for Blondie, Bowie, and Sparks redefined the ways rock songs could make people move. With Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” and Kenny Loggins “Danger Zone,” he kind of invented the mainstream schmaltz of the mid-80s, too. Which is why it’s a tad disappointing if not totally unexpected that Déjà Vu, his return record after a 30-year absence, isn’t one last great gaze ahead.
The record features a series of alternately buzzy and bland guest singers. “Right Here, Right Now” is the record’s best moment, a two-pronged victory lap for Moroder’s legacy that mixes the thump of late-90s Daft Punk with Kylie Minogue vocals that channel her irresistibly airy hits from the early-00s. Of the moment guests Charli XCX and Sia fit in, but add b-side versions of their pre-established personas. Bringing in Britney Spears to do a blank, robo-version of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” ends up better than expected for such a weird choice. But for a producer who made his name as a great facilitator of artist reinvention, there’s little here that reveals a new aspect of the talent involved. It sounds like old Moroder, but even a thin version of that. It’s seldom as fun and funny as his songs once were. Compared to the humid sexuality of those classic Donna Summer singles, it seems utterly neutered. (Though with a septuagenarian producing tracks for a number of young women, that’s perhaps a small blessing.)
Disco’s recent pop peak, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories was also staid and underwhelming as a whole. (Moroder’s participation in one of its tracks is what nudged him back into the studio.) It was a stranger and more eclectic record than this one, though, with a smash single that proved pure-cut, 70s disco can still contain broad public charm. But with the genre already rescued from critical infamy, new ideas are needed more than restated old ones. After a long cycle of underground reassessment and pop chart renewal, disco’s in danger of coming back to death.