If there’s one thing you could accuse David Guetta of, it’s being formulaic. He has a design in front of him and he rarely colors outside of it. It’s like he has a dance pop algorithm he uses to write all of his songs. To that end, you could say that his music is as generic as it is formulaic. Because, let’s face it, he basically just comes up with a generic dance beat, adds some synth and gets someone famous to sing on top of it. Others do this as well — Calvin Harris immediately comes to mind — but nobody sounds as nonspecific as David Guetta.
Truth be told, I have loved some David Guetta songs. “Titanium” with Sia is certainly a dance pop masterpiece, one of the best songs a DJ/producer has ever done with a guest vocalist, really. Likewise, “Without You” with Usher is just plain awesome. But for every great track Guetta has ever constructed, there have been three that fall flat. And he continues to have this problem on his new album Listen. You have a handful of gems, spliced in with a whole lot of failed experiments, a whole lot of filler. But I try to focus on the positive with my reviews, so I’m going to tell you about the diamonds before the cubic zirconia.
The first worthwhile track on the album is its second song, “What I Did For Love” featuring Emeli Sandé. “I can’t believe what I did for love,” she sings, her voice full of soul, and it’s effectively moving. But then everything Emeli touches turns to gold, doesn’t it? She’s a prize winner, plain and simple. Only rich and complex, like a bold, flavorful coffee. The music surrounding her voice here is rather basic, but her vocals elevate the song to a much higher status. As for what that music sounds like, it’s as though Guetta decided to rewrite “Finally” by CeCe Peniston. Or Katy Perry’s “Walking On Air,” which was inspired by “Finally” (which is why Katy plays a bit of it before her song on her current tour). The beats throb with enough gusto to sound modern, but the keyboards that dominate the mix are pure ’90’s. Ditto for the bass guitar that’s slapped around here and there. But Emeli saves the day and this one should be a very successful single.
The following track, “No Money No Love” featuring. Elliphant and Ms. Dynamite is a winner, too. The beats sound like classic Guetta — strong but kind of boring — but these two women make it plenty colorful. The interplay between rising star Elliphant and Ms. Dynamite, who’s currently enjoying the second leg of her career, is interesting and captivating at that. Much of the song has a cool reggae vibe but unfortunately Guetta didn’t fully commit to making a 100% reggae track, which would have been a bit more exciting. Still, it’s effectively contagious.
Perhaps the biggest risk Guetta takes on Listen is the ballad “I’ll Keep Loving You,” a duet between Birdy and Jaymes Young. The first couple of times I listened to it I found myself wishing that it didn’t have a dance beat, which plays throughout much of the song, but now that I’ve heard it a half dozen times I don’t mind said beats at all. Rather than being distracting, they successfully elevate the emotion, Guetta’s risk paying off beautifully. Besides, the next song, album closer “The Whisperer” featuring Sia, is purely a gorgeous piano ballad that’s the best track on the album and better than anything on Sia’s latest record as well. This is due to its haunting lyrics and Sia’s ethereal vocals, possibly her most touching since “Breathe Me.” Rather than pouring on the beats, here Guetta lets the piano soar and build to its sonorous chorus where he adds lovely flourishes of strings. Bravo.
Unfortunately, the rest of the album isn’t nearly as impressive as the songs I’ve just profiled. “Listen” featuring John Legend tries to be a combination of the above mentioned Guetta/Usher smash “Without You” and Legend’s recent hit “All of Me,” but it falls flat, lacking the passion of those two tracks. You can’t blame them for trying, but you also can’t help but wish they’d tried a little harder. “Yesterday” featuring Bebe Rexha isn’t much better. It starts off promisingly enough, and the lyrics feel inspired, but once the synth hits it turns into stale cheese. And “S.T.O.P.” featuring Ryan Tedder is as painful to listen to as any of his OneRepublic albums, which always fall flat for this writer. But, hey, it’ll probably be a hit so what do I know?