The three EPs Canadian Dan McLay, aka, The J Arthur Keenes Band, released thus far have been collectively revered by the scene as pinnacles in chiptune composition. However, TJAKB seemed to be adrift in a sea of influences; each release encompassed a different approach to a similar sound, though none cohesively linked to the next part of his canon. That is until ‘Mighty Social Lion’. Acting as a collision catalyst for most of his previous reference points, ‘Mighty…’ also signals a further expansion; this time into the realms of 90s alternative and britpop nuance.
‘Mighty Social Lion’ also marks a significant dip in the reliance on chiptune. This isn’t a bad thing, as whilst these elements are understated, this lends the release an undeniable maturity, where chips are an instrument rather than a gimmick, undeniably aesthetic rather than foolishly crowd-pleasing (not that Keenes has ever practiced this). In ‘Cardboard Box’, chiptune only comes to the forefront after a drawn out tease, marking the track’s shift from confined tension to bombastic euphoria. Chiptune carries the early 90s Radiohead ambiance of ‘Dumb Jokes’, every staccato arp complimenting the scaling guitars and swooning voices.
Maturity is also prevalent in the composition, with songs feeling less like the work of a teenage Robbie Shakespeare and more like that of a mature Win Butler. ‘Trials’ focuses on slightly sinister undertones, with staccato guitar and piano accenting the Beta Band vibe flowing throughout. ‘Worth Keeping’ keeps restrained in the first half and then lyrically whimsical in its closing. Elsewhere, Wild West themed ‘Old Dusty’ manages to traverse around the edges of tortuous superfluity and instead plants itself somewhere between emotionally immediate and musically ingenious. Also, the line “You gave me dirty looks” seems destined to become as iconographic as “This ain’t your home”.
Arthur also harks back to the grapefruits of old; single ‘Congratulations’ has an instantaneous hook, baring its sugar coated fangs and sinking in early, and ‘Under Construction’, is a welcome return to hook-laden abrupt bubblegum sweetness, sounding like a cut from ‘The World’s Smallest Violin’. It’s hard to point out real negatives on this release, though, apart from the odd moment of lyrical cringe (see ‘Cardboard Box’ and ‘Mr. Radiator’ for the worst offences). In fact, ‘Mr. Radiator’ is the only track that really misses the mark, featuring both the album’s worst lyrics and most uninspired music. It’s not a terrible song, it’s just a rock in an ocean of diamonds is incredibly hard to ignore.
Overall? Well, the final track, ‘The Doors’, aptly explains the release as a whole. This track is epilogical in almost every sense; it encompasses almost all previous sounds on the album, forming a six minute dash of irresistible baroque pop chip with more hooks than a fisherman’s cloakroom. It jumps from sweet and pop-heavy to drawn out and controlled affection, winding its way to a grandiose finale. If last year’s EP turned you off J Arthur’s new direction, ‘Mighty Social Lion’ won’t amend your position. However, by featuring sublime maturity alongside emotional cognizance, J Arthur has never sounded better.
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