Modjo and the Heyday of Nu-Disco

August 13, 2018

Matilda Morley

The much-fabled death of disco was perhaps one of the most heinous musical crimes of the twentieth century, and no sooner than its bedazzled casket was lowered into the ground did the general public collectively turn their backs in shame. Disco, renowned for its status as the ultimate in dance music and its social standing as a haven for the marginalised, was suddenly a genre of cringe and disdain only to be dusted off at weddings and children’s birthday parties. Despite this, however, the turn of the millennium birthed a new beginning – nu-disco. The characteristic sound of Y2K, nu-disco wormed its way out of the casket and into the hearts of 21st century partygoers.

Nu-disco was, essentially, a crisper, more formulaic version of disco’s first incarnation – boogie fever crafted by precise modern technology and production. Hallmarks of the genre include Kylie Minogue’s “Better The Devil You Know”, S Club 7’s “Don’t Stop Movin’”, Dr Alban’s “Sing Hallelujah!” and Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder On The Dancefloor”, as well as a plethora of updated covers of 70s and 80s anthems such as Uniting Nations’ “Out Of Touch”, “Call On Me” by Eric Prydz and Tom Jones’ “Sex Bomb ft. Mousse T”. Perhaps the greatest of all these, however, is French House legend Modjo’s 2001 self-titled (and only) album.

Modjo is the perfect nu-disco album, featuring the massive hit “Lady (Hear Me Tonight)” along with some lesser-known, yet criminally underrated singles. The album has failed to gain widespread critical acclaim, which I am here to singlehandedly fix.

The first track of this album is, appropriately, an instrumental intro that gives us just a morsel of what is to come. “Acknowledgement” mixes eerie atmosphere with heavy beats, building our suspense for what follows whilst maintaining its own individual appeal.

Following this is the absolute banger “Chillin’”, which throws us straight into joyful reverie with a layered uptempo hook sampled from Chic’s “Le Freak”. The cocktail of infectious melodies, topped off with a great bassline, cements this song’s place as one of the most memorable tracks of the album. Also noteworthy is the music video, which is delightfully 2000s – a disco rave inside a bowling alley.

Track 3, “Lady (Hear Me Tonight)”, is definitely the most well-known of the band’s output. Often misrepresented as a one hit wonder, this song is a deeply immersive dance track that should be gratingly repetitive but somehow isn’t. The reason for this is uncertain, but it lies either in the wistful yet upbeat vocal hooks or the melancholy foundation of another Chic sample – 1982’s brooding “Soup For One”.

Music video for “Lady”

“Too Good To Be True” is transitional, filling space between bangers, but somehow has a significance of its own. A seemingly meaningless conversation at a club, singled out amongst a sea of chattering voices, is brought to the forefront as a deep, thrumming drumbeat settles in the back as little more than atmosphere. Maybe it’s a long shot, but perhaps the barely imperceptible club music indicates to us that this track is meant to be the band’s extremely meta take on their own music…

One of my favourites, the brooding ballad “Peace Of Mind” has a strong vocal presence, which is highlighted particularly by the pre-chorus – the melody of which is a desperate yet infectious wailing. If there’s one thing this song proves, it’s that in the world of Modjo, even ballads as pleading and morose as this deserve to be danced to – and as such we are treated to not one, but two delightfully moody party anthems.

Following in its footsteps is “What I Mean”, which on paper seems almost identical – broody, ballad, danceable – but it holds its own and stands out in spite of all that. Equal parts depressing and uplifting, the ominous, lilting harmonies contrast with the melodic line to create an immersive world of moody intensity that pairs perfectly with a late night house party – or indeed, a rainy day commute.

“Music Takes You Back” is an intense buildup of anticipation – an endless and all-encompassing beat that grows and grows before the eventual introduction of vocals fleshes it out and gives it sudden direction. While not the greatest of the album, this track is nevertheless an enjoyably immersive experience.

Music video for “No More Tears”

Before there was Ariana, there was Modjo. “No More Tears”, my personal favourite, harnesses the spirit of disco effortlessly in an upbeat, glittery bop that engages and soothes whilst still being the absolute pinnacle of dance music. This song is energy in a bottle, and once uncorked just washes over you in six minutes and fifteen seconds of absolute bliss. The only thing that could possibly detract from it is the guitar solo, which, while not a fault of its own, just makes me wonder what more could be achieved by replacing it with a sublime saxophone solo. In any case, what makes this song stand out so much is the brief rhythmic breakdown right before another chorus at 3:40. It’s so easy to get caught up in the swell of the strings and harmonies, the intricate layers that fill up every corner of your hearing, but this moment just snaps us out of that – refreshes our ears with the bare foundations of the track so that we can fully appreciate it when it all comes crashing back in the final stretches of the song.

Bit of a downer after such brilliance, “Rollercoaster” is, frankly, skippable. It’s not much more than a nice beat and some dynamic changes – still enjoyable, but perhaps a little underwhelming. “On Fire” is a frantic little track, not quite measuring up to the highs of the album but providing a uniquely anxious beat that best suits a darkened dance floor.

“Savior Eyes” is an oozy serenade that soothes with a slower tempo, soft harmonies and plenty of atmosphere. As evidenced by the track’s placement, this song is designed to be a relaxing contrast to the others, a gentle slow dance to ease us out of the party mood and into the dwindling twilight of a gathering that’s slowly winding down.

The final track, an acoustic version of “Lady”, is odd in its instrumentation compared to the rest. Whoever thought of this iteration must have had a very strong vision for it, as it sounds completely different from the original. Bossa nova influences dominate the instrumental part, despite the vocals perhaps not suiting the style as much. A strange, yet pleasant choice.

Be sure to check out the full album, which is on Spotify.