The early signs were very exciting. The announcement of a forward-thinking concept about the rise of artificial intelligence ominously oblierating visceral human interaction (from those annoying self-checkouts to inaccurate online translators) from an act that’s relaunching itself after a seven year absence. Teasing audiences with a typeface straight from The Terminator and a hype-inducing video debuting next generation robotic headgear. Could this be Jamiroquai introducing themselves to a new Generation Z audience or a return to the meaningful awareness of society that protested on their first few albums?
The titular track ‘Automaton’ (meaning: a moving mechanical device made as an intimation of a human being) is inventive and refreshing. The contrasting vocals are of a Dr.Jekyl and cyborg Hyde nature with the menacing latter threatening to dominate the stereo space. The track is complete with science-fiction synths, an assortment of robotic buttons and similar technological commentary to ‘Virtual Insanity’ but more despairing. ‘Superfresh’ also ulitlizes the funk-disco vocoder technique in a Daft Punk/Justice package and imagines the same android dancefloor as Red Hot Chili Pepper‘s ‘Go Robot’.
However, Jay Kay and company confusingly lose sight of their promising hypothesis pretty quickly with the rest of the album narrating about a jumble of topics and a kaledioscope of musical styles which neither reference back to the robotic concept. Even Jamiroquai-purists may have forgiven the lack of human-made funk and electronic gadgety if it had an appropriate air-tight parable behind it.
Song subjects appear at random from Jay Kay’s imagination including ‘Hot Property’ being about armed femme fatales in the military and ‘Nights Out In The Jungle’ lyrically sounding like it’s from the last Glass Animals album with it’s voyeuristic perspective of characters in a repulsive city. They can also be reflective with ‘Dr Buzz’ being another song that references Jay Kay’s complicated relationship with drugs following in from ‘High Times’ and ‘Little L’. Whilst many tracks following the pattern of Jay Kay’s preoccupation with love and womanizing such as ‘Cloud 9’, ‘Summer Girl’ and ‘Something About You’ – the latter name-dropping Candy Crush, perhaps just to show that the songwriter is on-the-ball with the latest fads. Contrastingly, Carla shows a mature yet bizaare side to the 47-year-old who writes a song to the daughter he’s never had.
Yet the album suffers from a lot of lazy songwriting that’s more expected from chart-toppers including the outdated Chromeo mutter of “you know that she’s hot property. That girl is hot, hot, hot property” and the hackneyed repetition of “We can do it. I can love you baby” from ‘We Can Do it’, although Jay Kay is known for his motivational messages, so perhaps it’s traditional of him.
Yet that doesn’t mean ‘Automaton’ is not enjoyable, there are plenty of highlights that are repeat-worthy and the music can be intoxicating. ‘Nights Out In The Jungle’ uses güiro, shakers and animal noises over a thick looped groove to create a slick atmospheric anthem and is also unorthodox for Jamiroquai’s use of rapping and old skool record-scratching. Furthermore, ‘Vitamin’ and ‘Hot Property’ are intriguing with the former’s use of disorientated saxophone borrowed from David Bowie‘s Blackstar and the latter inclusion of Russian speech. Whilst, the lengthy time of ‘Dr Buzz ‘is reminscent of Jamiroquai’s earlier work and so is the relaxing acid-jazz smoothness and unpredictable time signatures of the song’s progression.
On opener ‘Shake It On’, Jay Kay psyches himself up to return to the music scene: “I can feel it everywhere, music still infecting me, music still protecting me. Funky starlight freaks” and no matter the album’s weaknesses, it’s still incredibly pleasing to have him and his band back in the spotlight.