It can be unfortunate to determine what is or isn’t “regression,” or even “progression,” musically. It’s an easy way to presume to have tapped into the musician’s methodology, inspiration, and thus streamline our mode of valuation. Regardless, many will deem Joker’s The Vision a regression, and it will stick. Well-prior to the release of his first full-length, Joker claimed he would make it “completely more fucked up than you’ve ever heard from me before,” and his title-onwards hubris will have us listening as intently and scoffing as pronouncedly as we’re sure to do. The familiar lyrical and thematic content ranges from space travel to Bristol pride to the slow-burn of musical success to visionary solipsism, but what can we say about the expansiveness of Liam McLean’s multidimensional outlook or his laser-like vision in all its narrow acuity, beyond his well-articulated synthesizers? His forte is, and has been, vigorous lead-instrument synths with world-historical oomph, and tracks like “My Trance Girl” don’t disappoint in that regard, but they don’t take us places or offer structures rewarding repeat visits. Although parts of “Tron” explode, the “hey” voices at the end hang there without much to do, like the punched-in wah-wah funk at the end of “Back in the Days,” which aren’t motivated by the preceding gestures nor do they anticipate much of note. On all of the tracks, we sense a beat in need of unifying or even dis-unifying gestures, on the part of Joker or his vocalists, which could refresh the otherwise undercooked strains of R&B, house, new jack swing, dubstep, et al.
To those familiar themes and their employment: turning on the lights and letting them be seen, art-directing your own luminescence to train eyes on oneself, has been a highly suggestive move since at least the time of Jay Gatsby and Daisy — or, if we’re being cute about it, since the advent of the sun. Here, the notion of shining one’s beam adds mild sparkle to the chorus from wannabe nostalgia-inspiring single “Back in the Days,” as we are asked to “turn on the lights, so they see me here” (and later to be seen “clear”). But the track pales in comparison to Kanye West’s recent and more efficient use of a similar motif in “All of the Lights,” which follows Yeezy’s comparably incisive verses, and it’s a far cry from the best we’ve heard in throwback rap or celebrations of Bristol, despite the presence of credible UK rappers Buggsy, Shadz, Scarz and Double (KHK-SP). When we make out lyrics on this album, during high-speed grime or otherwise, they simply don’t shine. Joker either hasn’t developed an ear for nuanced lyrical or vocal character that generates impact or he doesn’t care. This doesn’t mean it’s a chore to listen to The Vision, just uninspiring.
It doesn’t hurt my ears nor does it prick them up. I certainly don’t see any, or enough, colors to justify this as the second coming of “the Purple One” — maybe the aural equivalent of McDonald’s Grimace: bold, clownish, and superfluous. Joker still has the laser-fried, bass-heavy, Wiley-meets-Cameo feel that Kode 9 and other dubstep illuminati have in the past rightfully singled out for praise, but there isn’t much in the way of get-up-and-go, nor are there striking or novel juxtapositions, only a slow trot through a range of reductively ascertainable styles and moods. Nothing’s very special, though the track “Lost” comes closest: high-pitched Knife-like vocals make way for hyper-speed grime, a plethora of truisms like “keep it righteous,” stuttering beats and synths, laughter, lazy scatting, and less predictability. I’m still not escaping to a visionary place or vicariously shining.
Likewise, the desire for “Slaughter House” singer Silas to take its audience out of here, far from a generalized sense of terror and away from the “killing floor,” leaves me unmoved, as we remain in rather banal surrounds. The vocals, as they are on most other tracks, are oppressive rather than liberating. Ironically, as the track implores us to get “out of here,” we might want to leave the singer’s environment. Although I mildly enjoy the dull circular saw slicing through the track, he asks us to “see what the hook brings,” and I’m left bored by this allegedly escapist toe-tapper. Timbaland-styled synths, minus a suitably surrogate Justin Timberlake, don’t quite cut it on “On My Mind,” despite that Ginuwine-riding-a-pony bounce and jacked-up “Girl/Boy Song” via “Running Up That Hill” plucked-string intro. I wish the chutzpah of a, say, Mary J. Blige could have had a crack at concluding track “The Magic Causeway,” making its soul intimations fruitful. If I want to be charmed by a melodica, or its synthetic counterpart, which pops up at the album’s end, I’ll turn elsewhere.
There isn’t enough unforced spontaneity or meaningful pop-craft on The Vision to sustain a full-length album, and a smorgasbord of tasty synths isn’t enough to inspire vision: Joker comes across as more talented craftsperson than Captain Courageous. He’s neither a pack-leading bass-head or a striking pop-smith, instead a maker of passable background fodder. Earlier Joker songs like “Gully Brook Farm” at the very least had atmospheric murk and unpredictable pitch-shifting boding well for things to come: give the man a budget, we supposed. Now that he has one, we’re given a vision that is clean, strident, shiny, and full of impersonal and ersatz luxury. Give me the requisite Ferrari or call it a day.