Most people made their mind up about Jamiroquai back in the early-90s when Jay Kay burst onto the scene, with a didgeridoo and a big fur hat, sounding like Stevie Wonder on Acid Jazz. Either you dismissed him – and his tabloid- friendly, photographer-baiting, speed-camera-luring behavior only added to the strength of your feelings – or you were one of the millions of people who helped him amass a fortune that’s enabled him over the years to buy almost enough cars to stock Beaulieu Motor Museum single-handedly.
But when he returned in February with the title track to his eighth album, something had changed. “Automaton” is, whether you want to admit it or not, a fascinatingly unusual song full of unexpected musical and lyrical quirks. For starters, it breaks into an opening verse that bears almost no relation to its opening 30 seconds. Then there’s the strange buzzing and whirring sounds, worthy of Aphex Twin, that interrupt him; the song’s almost random application of vocoder; a chorus whose Moroder-esque vibe is positively delirious; a breakdown with a Sugarhill Gang-style rap; and references to Billy Idol (“Eyes without a face) and David Bowie (“Feel like a man that fell to earth”). It’s so bizarre that, when it fades out after four-and-a-half minutes, even haters ought to agree it’s too early.
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Nothing else on Automaton quite lives up to this brilliantly bizarre comeback, but it’s still an album that becomes increasingly difficult to resist. Like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, feel-good disco lies right at its heart: check opener “Shake It On” stabs of Philly strings and Nile Rodgers guitar licks, or the funk bass that drives “Nights Out In The Jungle”.
“Hot Property”, meanwhile, seems to have combined the French duo’s Around The World with a sped-up version of the Bee Gee’s Stayin’ Alive, whose chorus it borrows while adding random spoken Japanese.
Even the blander numbers can be striking: the racy club- pop of “Superfresh”; “Vitamin”, with its strange trumpet interlude; “Summer Girl” well-crafted disco-soul. Fans will be thrilled, and Automaton does what cynics would have thought was impossible: it insists that you re-evaluate Jamiroquai. When you gonna learn?