In 2008, when Andy Butler formed Hercules & Love Affair and released breakthrough single ‘Blind’ –featuring Anohni – into the world there was a fear from DFA Records that the track had the potential to be a one-hit wonder of sorts. Quite the contrary, the critically acclaimed track shone a light on Butler’s project which has now, nearly ten years later, released its fourth studio outing Omnion. Since its inception, Hercules & Love Affair has grown to be a more collaborative effort, combining the intensity and and elegance of Butler’s production with a word-class cast of featured artists, including Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke. Omnion is no different, boasting performers like Sharon Van Etten and The Horrors ‘ Faris Badwan, among others. Despite all these other voices though, the distinct presence that occupies each track on the album is that of Butler himself, making this the most personal Hercules & Love Affair release to date.
A lot of people would be quick to assume that “dance music” can’t be personal, and it would be an easy assumption to make. A lot of mainstream dance music can be quite vapid and mass-produced, an algorithmical attempt to manufacture the perfect summer club hit. It’s fair to assume that a lot of people don’t go out for the night to think about their feelings. Where Omnion is different is in its fusion of thoughtful lyrics with frantic, hypnotic dance beats. Through the voices of his collaborators, Butler’s honest and often poignant lyrics shine through the manicured production, lending to the album’s atmosphere a sort of emotional dance floor setting. If you weren’t paying much attention, songs like ‘My Curse & Cure’ could easily just be another disco party number. It’s only when you focus properly on regular collaborator Gustaph’s singing about the way his – really Butler’s – heart “keeps breaking down”, and how he doesn’t want to “feel the pain anymore” that the real heart of this record breaks through.
There is heartbreak hidden on this album. It’s darkly upbeat and starkly honest, reminiscent of the new wave era. Butler grapples with that task of making people dance to the heaviest of emotions, proving – if proof were needed – that upbeat is not the same as happy.
He isn’t afraid to slow things down from time to time though, as is heard on the opening and closing tracks, ‘Omnion’ and ‘Epilogue’. Sharon Van Etten leads the opening title track, declaring: “Over the years my heart has hardened / the pain has been great /I’m not the man people used to see”, begging for some divine intervention to show her the way. Speaking about the track, Van Etten called it both “vulnerable and strong”, and stated how Butler’s heart “beats in the song”. Indeed, his heart beats throughout the whole album, from the pulsing and aggressive ‘Controller’ – where Faris Badwan spits at the listener to hurt him and to use him – to the hopeful closing notes of ‘Epilogue’.
Omnion is a thoughtful, introspective, and an emotional album but one in which those feelings have not stood in the way of production quality or danceability. Butler himself described Omnion as a “starker” take on the Hercules & Love Affair musical heritage, and it does feel stripped back to the roots. This album is a coming-of-age journey of self-discovery, soundtracked by 80s synths and a disco heart. A strong effort, and one that falls together neatly. Aoife O’Donoghue