When “Itchy Fingers” begins, you are put in mind of a slow-burning electronic ballad, but then the 80’s-inspired video game sounds start bleeping and echoing, like an electronic ping-pong ball, and the frenetic pace is set. Junior Boys have been doing this for years, lulling us into a false sense of warm security before setting us free into a forest of earthly delights. The song stops and starts, there are oriental-influenced flourishes, and a kind of musical staccato that pays homage to the wildly restless Timbaland, showing music-makers at the height of their powers.
Restlessness is a theme in the Junior Boys’ work; never satisfied, they fly around the musical landscape, magpie-like, picking up inspiration as they go. On “Playtime”, the most romantic, reflective composition on the album, they slow the pace down to a sensuous crawl, and it is a most majestic jewel, showcasing Jeremy Greenspan’s vocal and proving it to be one of the most underrated in music; softly direct and confidently confiding, you can almost sense his breath on your back when he sings, “I’m waiting for you.”
This kind of intimacy is very particular to Junior Boys, and though their production has progressed since 2004’s Last Exit, they have never lost their sense of exploring the heart and its secret mystery, a notion which radiated from 2006’s painfully melancholy So This Is Goodbye and 2009’s Begone Dull Care.Their sense of naked honesty makes them so vulnerable that it is hard to believe they put it down on record, but that is part of their intriguing beauty; their willingness to fall is because they are pushed by the hands of true experience, and they also create the softest of musical landings for themselves and us.
This is a quality that makes “You’ll Improve Me” one of the standout tracks on the record, as Greenspan sings, “If you want it, never show it”; and it begins with perhaps five different sounds competing for attention, until they settle into a steady, soulful beat with ornamental flourishes scattered here and there, before breaking down into the tambourine-accompanied, synth-heavy joyous chorus, going off into another realm entirely. It is essentially a perfect piece of electronic mastery,where you find yourself thinking about Prince, Arthur Russell, and at one point Talking Heads. It is awash with brilliance.
It mirrors the following track, “A Truly Happy Ending”, which brings to mind the best of late 70’s disco and early 80’s electronic experimentation, and is another perfect exercise in nostalgia meeting modernity, something Junior Boys do so well (listen to “Banana Ripple”), and though they may sound evermore confident in terms of production, they are still frail human beings, as Greenspan calls out, “I can’t be patient all the time/ Come and put your hopes up next to mine” before he whoops into a reverie, beckoning your sad heart towards the dance floor.
Perhaps that is what makes Junior Boys so special, their sense of hope in a murky world. They are an odd proposition because they have a certain pure innocence that they bring to electronic music that is bound up with delicate intelligence and a perceptiveness that is rare. When you get to “The Reservoir” and its world of delicate glockenspiels, you feel as if you are in a dream; “Kick the Can” expands on that dream, propelling you underground towards dubby beats and an almost meditative sense of refrain that recalls Animal Collective. However, the truth is, nobody sounds quite like Matt Didemus and Jeremy Greenspan. Junior Boys are so original, inventive, and poetic that they go far beyond electronic music into a much dreamier world full of infinite possibility. This is another chapter in their epic novel, and as Greenspan sings on “Playtime”: “Stare a little longer, like competitors do,” except there really isn’t any competition.