The story of UK electronic group Clean Bandit is a peculiar one. Grace Chatto met brothers Jack and Luke Patterson when they were all undergraduates at the University of Cambridge, where they formed a band alongside now ex-member Neil Amin-Smith, a violinist who was previously part of a string quartet with Chatto. Their first big hit, ‘Mozart’s House’, was reminiscent of Crystal Castles, but it also blended elements of electronic and classical music, which became their signature style. It’s bizarre and refreshing in a way that popular music rarely is, and yet it managed to reach number 17 on the UK Singles Chart.
“You think electronic music is boring?” they ask as soon as the track begins. Clean Bandit went on to challenge that notion, which is ironic, because only a few years later, their sophomore album ‘What is Love?’ does exactly the opposite. Their debut album ‘New Eyes’ had been a big success, especially with single ‘Rather Be’ featuring Jess Glynne topping the UK charts, pushing the band to continue their streak. Neil Amin-Smith left the group, unfortunately taking with her the incorporation of classical music into the band’s sound.
Clean Bandit did, however, keep up with their commercial success. ‘What is Love?’ is essentially a collection of flavourless, radio-friendly songs featuring a list of guest vocalists more recognizable than those on ‘New Eyes’, including Demi Lovato, Ellie Goulding, Luis Fonsi, and more. You’ll certainly have heard of the lead single and opening track ‘Symphony’, which is actually one of the better songs on the album, largely because of Zara Larsson’s impassioned and sincere delivery. It also has that euphoric quality of some of the band’s earlier songs. Compare that to ‘Rockabye’ featuring Sean Paul and Anne-Marie, an equally massive hit that’s entirely sanitized and devoid of any feeling; and that’s without getting into the irritating and cringe-worthy chorus.
The problem is that most of the songs on ‘What is Love?’ follow a generic formula that lacks any of the creative energy and talent that the band evidently has, seemingly for the purpose of making them as safe and accessible as possible. ‘Baby’ featuring Marina and the Diamonds and Luis Fonsi (of ‘Despacito’ fame) does nothing but cash in on the current reggaeton trend. ‘Solo’ featuring Demi Lovato attempts to keep it clean by cutting out the word “fuck” by means of sonic experimentation but ends up being simply annoying; for a song about masturbation and feeling sexually liberated, both the sound and delivery are devoid of any kind of sexual energy. As a result, like many songs here, you forget what the song is actually about, and rather than standing out, it becomes background pop music. Instantly recognizable background music, but background music nonetheless.
There’s little to remark about the following tracks, other than the fact that they repeat the same cut-and-dried ideas, only with different guest artists. There’s ‘Mama’ featuring Ellie Goulding, where, again, any emotion is buried behind the predictably flat production and songwriting, as is the case with ‘Should’ve Known Better’ featuring Anne-Marie, ‘We Were Just Kids’ featuring Craig David and Kirsten Joy, and ‘Nowhere’ featuring Rita Ora and Kyle, whose lyrics try to capture a sentiment but fail as any potential impact is lost somewhere in the process.
With the notable exception of ‘Tears’, the less successful and popular tracks can be found towards the end of the album, which either leads to songs that use the same formula but are just more forgettable and underwhelming (as in ’24 Hours’ and ‘Beautiful’) or actually surprising highlights. ‘I Miss You’, despite the familiar chords structure and sound, is an effective love song thanks to Julia Michaels’s evocative delivery and the subtle vocal manipulation. ‘Playboy Style’ features Charli XCX and Bhad Bhabie, and though it lacks the cutting-edge, futuristic pop sound that Charli XCX has been implementing ever since joining PC Music, it’s more punchy than any of the other tracks on ‘What is Love?’. But there’s little on the album that truly makes an impression – it’s weird to even call it an album, when there’s really no point in collecting and listening to these songs in a non-radio setting. We can only hope that Clean Bandit return to making interesting yet infectious electronic music with more personality and style, even if it means losing a few Top 10 spots.