Today, the new album from Dutch-now-American talent Junkie XL (aka Tom Holkenborg), is an enjoyable and interesting glimpse of an artist in process, in transition. But then again, Junkie XL has always been in process and in transition. Although of a predominately electronic mindset, Holkenborg has been experimenting and pushing boundaries for himself with every subsequent project. As an example of popular music development, Today is probably his most accessible work yet.
Although this is the fourth proper release under the moniker of Junkie XL (which was originally a two-man operation, with Urban Dance Squad’s Rudeboy, and now just a solo project for Holkenborg), there is a large sector of American and European audiences who might not have caught on to the name until just a few years ago. The hugely popular radio remix of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” was as inescapable as it was catchy. Almost overnight, attention was raised and curiosity piqued. Add to that Tom’s involvement as co-producer and writer on the album Airdrawndagger for the acclaimed DJ Sasha, and the fall of 2002 was a pretty massive turnaround for Junkie XL.
But that turnaround was as much stylistic as it was media exposure. Pre-Elvis, the Junkie XL sound had been a more bombastic form of breakbeat, rock and techno influences. Although never one to fully isolate himself within a particular genre, the earlier works were definitely more club-driven. The next release was the epic 2004 album, Radio JXL: A Broadcast From Computer Hell Cabin. It was epic not only in terms of diversity and personnel, but also in terms of length. The mass-market release was a two-disc collection, with the first disc being more upbeat vocal-driven numbers, and the following disc a more instrumental and introspective postlude. Once you factor in the additional double-album download-only 7AM, you have four albums worth of material, taking the idea of his own virtual pirate radio station to an almost literal extreme.
And he brought a whole host of people with him for the ride. The first disc of Radio JXL, 3PM, featured such varied and impressive guests as Robert Smith of The Cure, Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode, Public Enemy’s Chuck D., Peter Tosh, and Gary Numan, with Sasha also contributing to an instrumental on the second disc, 3AM. And the diversity of artists bled over into the diversity of styles. It ranged everywhere from the lilting electro-pop of “A Perfect Blue Sky,” to the club and radio hit “Catch Up To My Step,” and on to the hip-hop nods of “Access To The Excess” before winding its way back around to including “A Little Less Conversation.” It was literally a little something for everybody.
Since that time, Tom has become involved more and more with some soundtrack work for games and commercials (in fact, he contributed basically the entire soundtrack to the popular XBox title Forza Motorsport). He seems to be dipping his toes into anything and everything he can. Fortunately for us, this seems to be having a benefit on his songwriting. Which brings us up to Today…
There are two things you will notice right away after listening to Today. The first is that it seems to be less concerned with keeping a dance floor full. It’s not “chillout” music, but it’s definitely not for Friday night either. The second thing you’ll notice is that Junkie XL sounds like… well, perhaps himself, finally. He’s not alone, as he enlists some help from vocalist Nathan Mader, but there’s a cohesiveness that comes from having just one vocalist and a more focused sound palette that runs through an entire album. Most of the tracks are guitar-driven, played by Holkenborg himself, and reflect a rare mixing of solid songwriting and studio wizardry.
The album opens with the song “Youthful,” which is a sprawling 10+ minute track that slowly builds into a grand beat-rocking journey that recalls Unkle’s “Reign.” “Mushrooom” follows, and is probably the track most closely resembling previous Junkie XL sounds. A more driving electronic cut, propelled with gritty bass that eventually breaks open with a ringing guitar line heralding the beginning of summer. I mention summer because that’s where the rest of the album seems to settle. This isn’t a dark record. Neither is it self-conscious and veiled. It feels open and relaxed, with breezy tracks that sound very natural and very nice. Things continue with “Such A Tease”, which for me is the median sound for the entire record. It has a laidback groove that just makes you want to drive somewhere. Anywhere, as long as the sun is shining and the top is down.
Unfortunately, the bliss is interrupted by the jolting of the title track, “Today.” Suffice it to say that this is my least favorite song on the record, and I find it unfortunate since it is also the lead single, and therefore will be most people’s introduction to the record. It’s a grating melody with vapid lyrics, and is really the only blight on an otherwise excellent album.
“Drift Away” picks right back up where “Such A Tease” left off, and is a nicely understated vocal track with more shimmering guitars. Summer reaches a glorious high point with the track “Yesterdays,” which is a brilliant and beautiful song that fairly soars with epic grandeur. Hopefully it is destined to be the next single. From there the album begins to wind down with the gentle acoustic guitar drive of “Honey,” before landing softly with the beautiful “We Become One,” where vocals and soundscapes do more escaping than they do directing.
Overall, Today is a highly enjoyable record that finds Junkie XL seemingly enjoying the process of creating music more than ever before. It’s a thankfully unified sound that grows richer with each listen.