Hayes: Reviewing Calvin Harris’ ‘Motion’


Bob Hayes, Assistant Opinion Editor

Hardly any weekend night at Northwestern passes without dancing to a track from the wildly popular Calvin Harris. On Tuesday, the Scottish megastar released his fourth studio album, “Motion,” debuting at number two on the iTunes album charts. On “Motion,” the producer who has stood at the forefront of both pop and electronic dance music over the last half decade collaborates with Ellie Goulding, Big Sean, Alesso, Gwen Stefani, John Newman and HAIM, among others.

Though an instant top-seller due to Harris’ transcendent name recognition, “Motion” has already received a share of criticism. Grantland’s Steven Hyden called the album “canned,” while Billboard’s Megan Buerger dismissed it as “low-hanging fruit” that “plays it safe.” However fair these comments may be, we must understand both how difficult it is to truly measure an album’s merit upon its release as well as how to fairly evaluate an artist based on our preconceived expectations of his or her prior work.

Any discussion regarding “Motion” begins by comparing it to the overwhelming success of “18 Months,” Harris’ previous album, released in October 2012. The album featured hits like “We Found Love,” “Feel so Close,” “I Need Your Love” and “Sweet Nothing;” I could keep going, but there are too many on this record — it “was like a one-man ‘NOW’ compilation, featuring an incredible eight singles that went Top 10 in the U.K.,” Hyden writes.

It is important for us to realize a deceptively key reason we consider this album such a uniform success. Well-established pop star Rihanna led the vocals of “We Found Love” more than a full year prior to the release of “18 Months,” providing the previously unknown Harris both acclaim and popularity. “Feel so Close” jumped on the back of the latter’s commercial success and achieved radio ubiquity. These two tracks (and debatably “Let’s Go”) were already hits upon the album’s release due to a full year of heavy promotion, while all the other top-40 tracks on the LP were far from reaching their eventual popularity.

This week, critics listen through “Motion” and wonder where all the hits are, but we really need to wait at least a few months before we can find the answer, just as we had to wait for “18 Months.” Lasting tracks, namely “I Need Your Love,” featuring Goulding, took months before radio stations and subsequently the general population caught on. On the new LP, “Outside,” also featuring Goulding, has yet to reach its inevitable mainstream popularity, while “Blame,” featuring John Newman, enters the release with some momentum as a potential hit.

Another factor playing into criticisms of the album stems from outsized expectations of Harris following “18 Months.” People look at all the successes on the 2012 LP as benchmarks to surpass, while overlooking the fact that the aptly named “Summer” was an overwhelming radio success, while “Under Control” was one of the hottest EDM tracks of all of 2014.

Moreover, once we start naming all the hits from “18 Months,” we begin to expect every new track to match the accomplishments of Harris’ previous work. It is easy to listen through an album and think, “I don’t like this track. This album is not as good as previous ones by this artist.” But even I, in my criticism of the critics, completely forgot that obscure “18 Months” tracks like “Green Valley” and “School” even exist. When we listen to new music, we focus too much on the tracks we don’t like, whereas when we remember older music, we completely forget these tracks were ever made. Similarly, how can we ever sit down and listen to an album for the first time and find it anywhere near as good as the hits we have been jamming to for years?

Finally, it is important to realize that EDM represents an odd pocket of popular music. Mainstream critics and listeners criticize producers like Harris for failing to deliver radio hits, while EDM fans turn their backs on any artist who does. Consequently, artists have trouble reconciling these two independent fanbases. This summer, Harris released big-room banger “C.U.B.A,” which quickly received countless plays on festival DJ sets. A fully instrumental track with a heavy bass line does not carry much weight for non-EDM fans, so Harris added (horrible) vocals from Big Sean in an attempt to deliver some mainstream traction. Harris — the top-earning EDM producer, according to Forbes — has to constantly strike a balance between sticking to his funk/disco roots and keeping up with the EDM trends, while also maintaining popular relevance. In the end, it is difficult for anyone to be completely happy.

What is my opinion on “Motion?” As I have said, it is tough to come to any meaningful conclusions at this point, but I generally enjoy the album. “Under Control” is fantastic, and I won’t stop listening to “Outside” until the radio inevitably stops playing it. Harris has a number of big-room tracks on the LP, with “Dollar Signs” being the only original and interesting one. Some will find his more disco and indie-pop tracks like “Pray to God” and “Love Now” as the album’s pinnacle, but the most notable tracks on the album are the wholly original ones. The funky acid house track “Slow Acid” provides an intriguing listen, and the mellow, beautifully melodic “Ecstasy” may sneakily be the best track on the entire album.

In all, any music fan would be hard-pressed to listen through “Motion” without enjoying at least a few of Harris’ catchy tracks. As with any album release, before we pile criticism on the tracks we dislike, let’s wait a few months and a few million radio plays before we really evaluate the success of “Motion.”

Bob Hayes is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].