David Guetta, Calvin Harris, Avicii — they all mush together, right? In a world dominated by sharply dressed, white male DJs putting their name on songs sung by other people, it’s hard to set oneself apart. Yet, French dubstep master David Guetta has done a pretty impressive job of running ahead of the pack, churning out mega-hits like the eloquent “Sexy Bitch” with Akon and “Pitch Perfect” staple “Titanium,” featuring Sia, that deviate nicely from the dub formula. His latest album is Listen, a 14-song juggernaut of pop superstars and new faces alike; on it, he continues innovation streak on many songs but too often falls into the shackles of typicality.
Strong collaborations make this album shine — piano siren Emeli Sandé lends her magic to “What I Did for Love,” a sadder, slower yet still epic tune that turns into a dance anthem quickly, complete with Sandé’s soulful vocals. A surprising partnership with The Script proves halfway decent, too, with lead singer Danny O’Donoghue’s scratchy-pretty voice weaving its way through nostalgic, optimistic lyrics and a big arena drop.
“Dangerous,” one of the album’s pre-released singles, is the better of the two Sam Martin songs on the album, laced with interesting piano-turned-synth hooks and streamlined vocals from Martin. The other, “Lovers on the Sun,” sets itself apart with its uniqueness — it gives off eerie, Wild-West vibes in the verses, with distant whistling in the background and echo-y vocals. But that trance is shattered when the synths come in and the chorus turns into a typical, wordless club jam. Guetta works best when he strays from the norm.
Sia makes two appearances on Listen, and both fall into the shadows of her luminous breakout hit, “Chandelier.” She’s too good to ignore, though, and her distinct vocals are tailor-made for the album’s closing track, “The Whisperer.” This one is different in its lack of a beat, not to be mistaken for a lack of structure — there’s nothing wrong with a piano ballad following in the steps of her emotional classic, “Breathe Me.” And it’s inevitable to compare these two: Sia’s more upbeat number on this album, “Bang My Head,” disappointingly pales in comparison to “Titanium.”
Guetta tries reggae on for size in “No Money No Love,” a cute homage to Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” (though the two couldn’t be more different). Initially, it’s jarring to hear a reggae song underneath dubstep beats and a giant, synth-laden drop, but it works. Somehow it turns out really badass. “Sun Goes Down” follows in its ska footsteps with the help of MAGIC!, the culprits of this summer’s most infectious song, “Rude.” The lead singer’s voice is like butter, and he steers the verses in the right direction — but Sonny Wilson takes the wheel in the chorus with his vigorous, weathered voice, and the two men work to create a song that’s just too juxtaposed to create a cohesive listening experience.
“Listen,” “Yesterday” and “S.T.O.P.” all blend together in one giant blob of dubstep purgatory — it’s pleasant but less than exciting. Even though “Listen” and “S.T.O.P.” are graced with the likes of John Legend and Ryan Tedder of One Republic, respectively, their star power is not enough to aid the mediocrity of these melodies. “Lift Me Up” is enhanced by snippets of Cady Heron’s favorite choral group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and this mellow groove is a bit of a refresher.
Hipsters worldwide will rejoice at “I’ll Keep Loving You,” featuring Jaymes Young and Bon Iver interpreter Birdy. Without the electronic beats this song would easily serve its proper duty as the go-to wedding song of trendy Brooklyn twenty-somethings. It sounds sentimental, smooth, emotional — but the beats on top of it make it weird and dorky.
The best song on the album is undoubtedly “Hey Mama.” There’s a reason Nicki Minaj rules the charts these days; she brings a fresh, edgy energy to everything, and with help from Afrojack and Bebe Rexha, this song is fabulously contagious.
Guetta has assembled a notable array of musicians, and they, combined with his talent, make Listen a solid step forward for man — and DJ — kind.