During his headline set at Coachella 2016, Calvin Harris looked like a man who had it all sussed out. He had hits for days, dance bangers with hundreds of million of plays. And for every snipe from a critic that he kept reapplying the same proven formula, Harris’ response was simply to deliver another chart-topper.
But something has shifted in 2017. Suddenly, EDM no longer looks to be Harris’ preferred style. He’s released two songs so far this year, ’Slide’ and ‘Heatstroke’, and they both represent a massive sea change: out with drops, in with slick instrumentation; out with thick synth pads, in with unlikely guest spots.
Expect the unexpected ? https://t.co/AwUZ8hVMQz
— Calvin Harris (@CalvinHarris) February 28, 2017
It was easy to laugh when Harris tweeted: “All my songs in 2017 have been sonically designed to make you feel fucking incredible,” but his two recent singles are the sound of a producer trying to make a point.
He’s working with a vast, exciting cast of big names
Before putting out ‘Slide’, Harris signalled his intent by revealing plans to make “more joyful music” in 2017. “I feel like it’s missing from the world. And it was missing from my life. So I created it.” He then claimed he’d been working “with the greatest artists of our generation.” And no, he didn’t mean Chas & Dave.
‘Slide’ itself is an ingenious meeting of minds. On last year’s ‘Blonde’ album, Frank Ocean made melancholy vocals and vivid lyricism his trade. Set against glistening, palm tree-shadowed pianos, he sounds like the loneliest guy in the club. Migos’ guest verse gives the track a jolt of life, the kind of gushing bravado that works perfectly alongside Ocean’s moody chorus.
New track ‘Heatstroke’ (released March 31), welcomes in another unlikely pairing – Young Thug’s wobbling, amphetamine-doused verses and Ariana Grande’s ultra-slick vocal line. And just because he can, Harris brings in Pharrell Williams to provide some falsetto.
Both tracks are Harris’ way of showing he can work with the best and biggest in the game, but they’re also smart pairings that most producers would only dare to dream up.
He’s ditched shiny synths for lush guitar lines
Some of the best collaborations on paper turn out to be disappointing, coming off like they’ve been churned out in a hit factory rather than being a labour of love. Verses sound like they’ve been sung down a phone line, not the result of a productive studio session. But by dousing ‘Slide’ and ‘Heatstroke’ in layer upon layer of rich instrumentation, Harris lends the tracks a timeless feel. This might explain why he’s gone astray from an EDM signature. “I’m making music to make your soul happy,” he promised in February. And without veering too far into lofty ‘real music’ territory, his production shares more in common with classic funk records than anything on 2014’s ‘Motion’ album. It’s an interesting development.
Behind-the-scenes videos prove he’s a #realmusician
How I made Slide pic.twitter.com/dwu1NgVwFL
— Calvin Harris (@CalvinHarris) March 19, 2017
A couple of weeks after ‘Slide’’s release, Harris shared a behind the scenes video shot on his iPhone, which showed the meticulous way he put together the track. It sees him playing his own keys and bass (no more accusations of hitting the spacebar, thanks very much), segueing in Frank Ocean and Migos’ vocals, before landing on the final product. Although it looks like a very lonely experience for the poor chap, it’s intended to show the depth of the song, and just how much Harris himself was behind the wheel. Don’t be surprised if he shares the same kind of footage for ‘Heatstroke’.
He’s going against the tropical pop, playlist-friendly norm
2017 could have been a very easy year for Harris. Right now, just about anything with the slightest hint of tropical pop lands a spot in every Spotify playlist. EDM-nodding bangers aren’t in short supply, even if they might be going slightly out of fashion. Last year’s Rihanna collaboration ‘This Is What You Came For’ was an undisputed smash, but it had the feel of a hit-by-numbers box-ticker. He could have followed it up by taking the simple option, taking a shortcut towards another 100 million plays. But whether out of self-fulfilment or a desire to shift expectations, he’s gone the opposite way. Sure, it helps when music’s biggest names want to get involved, but he’s taking more risks than he needed to. Long may it continue.