On June 21st 2019, British group Hot Chip will release their seventh studio album, A Bath Full of Ecstasy. Their third album for Domino, A Bath Full of Ecstasy is the group’s definitive release, crystallising the sound they’ve become celebrated for – bridging euphoria and melancholy with colourful melodies, idiosyncratic vocalisations and pounding electronic pop rhythms. The album also sees them open up to a more adventurous and collaborative song-writing process, choosing to work with outside producers for the first time: Philippe Zdar, the French maestro who’s shaped the magic of Cassius and Phoenix, and Rodaidh McDonald, the Scot who’s collaborated with The XX, David Byrne and Sampha, among others.
The group (Owen Clarke, Al Doyle Joe Goddard, Felix Martin and Alexis Taylor) began working on A Bath Full of Ecstasy in the autumn of 2018, the bulk of it written and recorded in three, one-week long sessions. At his Motorbass studio in Paris, Zdar played the role of co-producer, mixing engineer and gentle eccentric, and built much of the sonic space that the album occupies: a focus on drums and bass, with minimal use of guitar and plenty of multi-layered, arpeggiated keyboard melodies; shaping A Bath Full of Ecstasy with the “French Touch” he’s known for. When recording in London, the analytical McDonald encouraged the group to make each song leaner, more direct. “Rodaidh was really good at getting us to think about the song-writing,” says Goddard, “especially on ‘Melody of Love.’ He was quite ruthless – ‘is this verse too long? Do we have to write something stronger? We should get to the chorus faster.’ He pushed us to be more ambitious.”
The album’s opener, “Melody of Love” began as a 12-minute instrumental track and features a sample from the gospel group The Mighty Clouds of Joy. Under the eye of McDonald, the group turned it into a bombastic explosion of Technicolor pop. A repeating sampled vocal, cut-up to the point of abstraction, follows the lyrical chorus and an uplifting synthesizer motif. This musical passage is the melody of love, the summation of the song’s workings; by working together, the group may be able to find the perfect gesture for their emotions. “Melody of Love” is about the importance of the transformative, non-verbal moment – ecstasy as personal happiness, but also of transcendence, of being outside oneself.
The sound of A Bath Full of Ecstasy has a breeziness to it that comes in large part from Zdar: “You have to put air in it!” he’d exclaim theatrically, says Doyle, “it needs more air!” His liberal use of a Grampian spring reverb unit for pleasant distortion made sure of that, along with the group’s choice of machines. They were particularly drawn to a select few: the wooden polyphonic KORG PS3200 synthesizer (“It sounds like the gates of heaven opening,” exalts Doyle), the Yamaha CS70-M and CS-80, synonymous with Stevie Wonder, and the Oberheim OB-Xa, an analogue synthesizer with a bright, celestial quality, beloved by Prince, Depeche Mode, and Detroit techno originators. Alongside these classic synthesizers and keyboards, modular synthesis plays an important role in the sound of A Bath Full of Ecstasy. After building up his own Eurorack system over the years, Martin made a corner of each studio cosy with wires and outboards, riffing off the looping melodies and physical gestures of the sessions to create gentle dopamine rushes of electronic ambience, amplifying the song structures as well as sculpting the lead and background vocals.
To better render the emotional honesty that colours much of Hot Chip’s output, the advice Taylor gives himself is to not “speak or verbalise too much through the creative process. Act instead.” That desire to act is most keenly felt on lead single “Hungry Child.” For 6 glorious minutes, Hot Chip fuse the uplifting soft pads and melodic keys of classic soulful house and the percussive swing of UK garage, full of sweet vocalisations and rhythmic snaps, to make an instant, club-ready hit. “Hungry Child” moves with a tender power that feels classically Hot Chip, its driving pace primed for full body-swings on heaving dance floors, hands raised and singing in unison.
Throughout Hot Chip’s albums, a light-touch vocal production process allowed for the nakedness of Taylor’s falsetto to become one of the group’s signatures. A Bath Full of Ecstasy, though, proves to be more experimental in this sense – delays and effects, modular wizardry and a more playful dynamic range in the mixing process take Taylor’s voice in new directions, blossoming and wilting with the flow of the music. On “Spell,” this comes to the fore: manipulating voices to be playful and free, without obfuscating the words; even harking to Prince’s gender-bending infectious lust, allowing Taylor to becoming less immediately recognisable at times. On “Bath Full of Ecstasy,” there’s a delicate display of lilting vocalisations, laid back ’70s pop-rock rhythms and gentle modular synthesis, all washed through like watercolour.
In his lyricism, too, Taylor steps out of his comfort zone on A Bath Full of Ecstasy. Though rooted in first person, autobiographical tales of romance and friendship, his storytelling here becomes more bodily, and more open to new ideas. On “Spell,” Goddard encouraged Taylor to transform his wistful tone into something more erotic and alive. On “Positive,” he chooses to sing from another person’s perspective altogether. In trying to understand how someone copes with illness and sadness, with living a lonely life on the streets, “Positive” tackles a dark subject matter while offering the protagonist a moment of respite through music: a juxtaposition between the frenetic euphoria of the sound and the melancholy of one human being, just hoping that someone, somewhere, cares.
It cycles back to what Taylor sees as the epitome of Hot Chip: “To demonstrate musically what is needed to be said; often, indeed, what is too difficult to be spoken.” Through the deep bond that the group have cultivated, expanding on their sonic experimentation and lyrical openness, A Bath Full of Ecstasy became their most dazzling album yet.