It’s difficult to know what to make of Aerial Love, the new EP from Daniel Johns and his first release in eight years. Surprisingly, there’s not a guitar to be heard here; we are certainly a very long way from “Tomorrow”.
To be fair, Johns has been on a steady trajectory away from garage grunge ever since he left his teens. And he has flirted previously with electronica during his early 2000s work with DJ Paul Mac in The Dissociatives. But whereas this earlier material mixed synth and samples with Johns’ adroit rock song-writing sensibilities to produce some pop gems, this latest EP is a full blown leap into the territory of Frank Ocean and Chet Faker, leaving no clue of the artist’s history.
Of course, it should be applauded when a musician takes off in a bold new direction, refusing to be held captive by the past or to fans’ expectations. What a pity it would have been if Bob Dylan had never picked up an electric guitar (it does seem laughable now that this ever sparked such outrage). But I’m not sure that the consequence of Johns putting his guitar down is quite as effective.
A cynical view might frame Johns as musical chameleon: he was grunge when that was hot and when Chet Faker tops the Hottest 100 he produces Aerial Love. Maybe he just has a knack for being on the musical pulse. Or is this merely the work of an ageing rocker searching for relevance?
It’s also difficult to gauge the audience for this. It’s unlikely to be well received by his existing fans, who are liable to view it as a betrayal of his legacy. The test will be whether a younger audience will see this as the real thing or an imitation. It may well be that this is the kind of music that excites Johns right now and audiences be damned. And should this be the situation, he is to be applauded.
In any case these new robes don’t sit entirely comfortably. The EP is a mixed bag; some tracks work well, while others don’t quite hit the mark.
It’s a soulful R’n’B affair that hits on a cool, breezy vibe, with slick production and lots of space in the mix. It also demonstrates that Johns is a capable songwriter in any genre.
In a strange choice for the opening track, “Preach” is the weakest number on the EP; the screeching falsetto is a little too much. The title track works much better, with some catchy vocal melodies and an effective, minimalist feel.
“Surrender” has a nice tender groove to it and finds Johns’ voice at its most versatile, although it’s also almost unrecognisable. “Late Night Drive”, appropriately a song about new beginnings, is the strongest of the EP, with a big chorus, some nice backing vocals and the rising sound of industrial synth.
There are bound to be some varied and strong opinions about this EP but, whatever you think, it is certainly refreshing that an artist is capable of surprising us. It will be interesting to see where Johns goes from here: whether the guitars are gone for good or if this is a momentary deviation in the career of one our most interesting musical artists.
Aerial Love is out now from Universal Music.
Reviewed by Matthew Trainor