It comes as little surprise that Zonoscope — Cut Copy’s long-awaited follow-up to their 2008 breakthrough In Ghost Colors — feels like such a letdown. In Ghost Colors, true to its name, was a work of indelibly smeared textures, a soft-glowing, otherworldy palette. Zonoscope feels, in comparison, hopelessly prosaic. Whereas that preceding record sounded like the embodiment of sentimentality, this one simply feels stuck lagging behind the times. The particular strain of indie dance-pop embedded within Zonoscope’s DNA often comes across as a preserved sample from 2004, ready to be sequenced next to The Rapture on a DFA compilation. Which is funny, since unlike In Ghost Colors, Zonoscope is entirely free of Goldsworthy/Murphy fingerprints.
The DFA brand has matured since 2004 — the same year that Cut Copy released their promising debut, Bright Like Neon Love — but it’s clear that without that partnership, the Melbourne quartet is struggling to develop at the same rate. The bright smudges of emotion so deeply felt on In Ghost Colors are absent, replace by canny, stolid, workmanlike electro-pop. Zonoscope is far from an outright failure, just more severe of a backslide than expected. The most artificial moments, of which there are admittedly few, pass quickly and sometimes build or bridge unexpectedly into moments of genuine transcendence. “Pharaohs & Pyramids” begins as an Orientalist lark, shallow and too well-tread, but at the halfway point the song switches gears into a New Order-y extended coda, and the neon love is clearly, keenly felt. That switch-up — a trick seemingly borrowed from Memory Tapes, who are themselves no stranger to homage and appropriation — is effective in ways that much of the rest of the album is not. Rather than editing with economy in mind, many songs spool out without purpose. “Sun God,” Zonoscope’s final cut, makes up nearly a third of the album’s runtime and yet fails to be even nearly as compelling as the lush, four-minute-long “Alisa.” That isn’t to say that Cut Copy never nails the extended jams; “Need You Now,” the second-longest song here, builds patiently, growing in intensity until the drums stutter and feeling pours forth.
Zonoscope has pleasures to spare, but one cannot fail to be underwhelmed when comparing it to Cut Copy’s past work. Perhaps that’s an unfair scale by which to measure this record’s success, but those contrasted feelings of disappointment linger, long after the new material has grown familiar. And perhaps familiarity is the problem here. Even at its best, Zonoscope doesn’t thrill, doesn’t surprise, doesn’t upend expectation. Those few songs that sound as if culled from older sessions — “Hanging Onto Every Heartbeat,” for one, with its down-scaled arpeggios and looped guitar strumming — still feel like like they lack an elusive, unnameable quality: ghost colors, so to speak.