Jason Kay could never be accused of being anything less than ambitious, musically speaking. From the moment his group Jamiroquai landed with their groundbreaking debut Emergency on Planet Earth (1993), they set the standard for the acid jazz movement which birthed them. But unlike their peers the Brand New Heavies and Incognito, Jamiroquai, under Kay's watchful eye, had bolder artistic ambitions. Kay's charisma—as a songwriter, singer and performer—would not be constricted by the aforementioned acid jazz format.
Starting on Travelling Without Moving (1996), Jamiroquai's music began to mirror the actual evolutionary trek that black music embarked on in the 1970s, cutting funk with disco rhythms. With the arrival of A Funk Odyssey (2001), their transformation was complete. The disco-funk opus was celebrated commercially, but a sect of critics and fans weren't too impressed—they pined for the simpler, band based approach to rhythm and blues synonymous with Jamiroquai's first two records.
The albums that followed A Funk Odyssey, Dynamite (2005) and Rock Dust Light Star (2010), were accomplished recordings, but ultimately self-conscious. The former leaned too hard toward studio gloss and the latter attempted to (erroneously) strip back the progress of their 1996 to 2001 stretch. Throw in changing tastes, emerging competition and some of Kay's own personal effects, it was the perfect storm to obscure Jamiroquai's impact on dance and R&B music at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s.
Automaton, Jamiroquai's eighth album, returns the group to the summit of power in the fields of dance, R&B, and post-modern disco that they helped establish and redefine. The album—a heady blend of their own seasoned style and references spanning Electric Light Orchestra, Earth, Wind & Fire and Afrika Bambaataa—feels effortless, but nothing short of kinetic in its execution.
The long player logs in at 12 tracks, each a fantastic host for Kay's beguiling presence to flex itself throughout the record's spinning time. Jamiroquai's electro-hop appropriation is some of the new ground covered here, as heard on the chilly, stuttering title piece and the pop-lock snap of “Nights Out in the Jungle.” Kay drops into the cadence of these tracks with an ease that shows not a hint of age has dimmed his vocal instrument. Elsewhere on the LP, curvaceous bass lines and spiky guitar pump alongside an amalgam of keyboards and digital effects on “Shake It On,” “Hot Property,” and “Something About You.” Then there are the nostalgic, but evocative string arrangements that descend, ascend and whoosh on “Cloud 9” and “Summer Girl.” Arguably, these two songs are “the classics” of Automaton.
It's notable that the stated title song is the only piece on Automaton that addresses any political or social themes. Rather, the record uses romantic conquest (and struggle) as its fuel to power the songs, which could leave certain audiences cold, but the narrative honesty of this approach is that the record has no pretense of being anything more than just an awesome party record—something that may just be a timely distraction from the assault of Donald Trump on the global mindset.
In all, Automaton is funky, sometimes shrewd, and occasionally surprising―it's the most enthralling Jamiroquai project since A Funk Odyssey to be sure. The perfect blend of flesh and steel, Jay Kay and crew manage to (once again) bring the future and the past into a singular space, showing they can mutually coexist on the dancefloor.
Notable Tracks: “Automaton” | “Nights Out in the Jungle” | “Summer Girl” | “Vitamin”