Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’: Album Review

Is it wrong, right now, to be as happy as Dua Lipa’s second album makes you? Is this any time to celebrate pop music at its most ebullient, when we should be bullish on meditation? Shouldn’t we be focusing our attention on weightier matters than how to all guiltlessly throw ourselves a solo disco party?

Yet, as she sings here: “I know that I seem a little stressed out… I wanna feel a different kinda tension — yeah you guessed it, the kind that’s fun.” To which we may respond: TELL US ABOUT IT, DUA.

“Future Nostalgia” seems like the exact right record at the exact wrong time —which maybe makes it the right time after all. It will make you nostalgic for a time when humans gathered in groups of two or more, to dance or even to do things which, when briefly invoked in lyrics, earn an otherwise innocent album an explicit language label. But the record is awfully enjoyable in our weird post-nightclub world, too — and maybe best listened to on corded headphones to keep you tethered from dancing out the door.

It’s an impeccably crafted, gleefully executed half-hour-plus of pop perfection that does meet the moment, maybe, in just reminding you how good it feels to be human. And to be in love. And to be in Studio 54.

Some of us may be a bit too young to establish actual nostalgia pangs for that. Miss Lipa, at 24, certainly is. Yet the free-range loudness of an actual funk bass guitar as the dominant instrumental element in about half the songs here — combined with, on top of that, frequent swirls of real strings — makes this one of the best disco albums to hit the streets since the time when Donna Summer stopped being a bad girl and started working hard for the money.

But those elements aren’t the whole of the album’s self-pronounced nostalgia. The title track, which opens the record, is in a different vein entirely, or almost entirely. “Future Nostalgia,” the song, feels like an all-out tribute to the kind of records Prince was producing when he threatened to have an endless array of artist-clients in the ‘80s. On this one, the thick bass that dominates other parts of the album gives way to retro-electro synth stylization and a cooing chorus line — “I know you ain’t a female alpha” — that you can easily imagine coming out of the mouths of babes like Vanity 6 or Sheila E.

In that track, she gives a shout-out to producer Jeff Bhasker (“I know you like this beat, ‘cause Jeff been doin’ the damn thing”), and it may be at that point that you start to worry just a little, as you realize that it’s the only credit Bhasker has on the album. With a lot of other hands on deck, can the remaining songs live up to that opener? Actually, you know at least some of them will, as the song that comes next in the running order, “Don’t Start Now,” has been out for quite some time and has been No 1 at Top 40 radio for the last six weeks. It’s the single that has already acted as a spoiler for the album’s organically bottom-end-heavy giddiness. “Don’t Start Now” may be remembered by kids as the feel-good song that weirdly cushioned their transition into a feel-not-so-good era and, one hopes, back again soon. For those of us with longer musical and institutional memories, we may remember it as a tune that brought a certain kind of deep groove and attitudinal buoyancy back onto the radio at a time we needed it most, which is anytime at all.

Lipa claims her influences are really from the ‘80s and ‘90s — even though she wasn’t born till 1995, it’s the music favored on British pop radio during that era that her parents loved and steeped her in, as a toddler and beyond. If some of us hear sounds that date back to the dance floors of even a few years further back than those, you can trace connections. In “Break My Heart,” the newest single, there’s a funk guitar line that may make you want to give someone credit for so aptly aping Chic, until you realize it’s a sample from INXS’ “Need You Tonight,” an ‘80s record that was already indulging in some Nile Rodgers nostalgia at the time. She might hear Jamiroquai, one of her childhood favorites, in these sounds, and others of us might hear the stuff he was influenced by.

In the end, after calling it a great disco record, we might also call “Future Nostalgia” a great MTV-era album that just happens to be not of the MTV era. What Lipa and her collaborators have borrowed more than the distinct sounds of the ‘80s and ‘90s is the carefree attitude that could produce a smash like “I Want to Dance With Somebody Who Loves Me,” a song that might get eaten alive in today’s harder-edged pop climate. Pretty much the whole of “Future Nostalgia” is just so damn happy, befitting her relationship change from “It’s complicated” or “It sucks” on her 2017 debut to “It rocks” in the intervening time frame. Previously, she described her style as “dance-crying” (maybe taking a cue from Robyn, with that). On “Future Nostalgia,” as in baseball, there is no crying.

The rest of her production collaborators probably deserve the same shout-out that Bhasker gets in the opener. They include Ian Kirkpatrick, TMS, Stuart Price, Jason Evigan, Koz, SG Lewis, Andrew Watt (get well soon), the Monsters & Strangerz, Lindgren and Take A Daytrip — all working together in bizarrely congruous enough a fashion that the 11 songs all strangely and wonderfully share the same sensibility.

Well, nine of the 11 do. It’s probably easier to think of the album ending at track 9 with “Break My Heart,” and then the two that follow and end the record as highly enjoyable but slightly outlier bonus tracks. “Good in Bed” has the feel of a Lily Allen song, with its cleverly humorous take on how the things that completely don’t work in a couple’s upright hours can fuel the passion that feels like reason enough to stay together. It’s not exactly as aspirational as all the more earnest love songs that preceded it, but it’s a bit of a hoot. And then the closer, “Boys Will Be Boys,” is a feminist call to arms — or at least a call to voices — with some smart things to say to the young sistren about not settling for a world in which toxic masculinity goes unquestioned. Even here, she throws in a slight bit of levity: “I’m sure if there’s something that I can’t find the words to say / I know that there will be a man around to save the day / And that was sarcasm in case you needed it mansplained / I should have stuck to ballet.”

As a side note, it might be worth pointing out that, if you have any Anglophile tendencies, it’s a pleasure to hear such a distinct British accent in the many moments where, for the length of a pre-chorus or bridge, Lipa lapses into a kind of speak-singing (not to be confused with hip-hop) that makes the music’s point of origin very clear. And you know, this won’t be the first time that a Brit, or Brits, has come along to make Americans feel better in a time of crisis. It’d be overstating it by a mile to say that “Future Nostalgia” will inspire great waves of Lipa-mania — we are far too into a fractured post-MTV world for that. But it’s an album to at least bring cooped-up families together, if noting else. Because pretty difficult to imagine anyone under 80 who is not a folk-or-die person not getting some enjoyment out of this record. (Not to count out octogenarians, either.)

In other words: If you find yourself having to share the Sonos right now, Lipa’s album is the elation-maker that may go viral with the whole household.

Dua Lipa
“Future Nostalgia”
Warner Records

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