Before Robyn danced on her own, before Adele rolled in the deep, there was Andy Butler. Of course, the idea of inherently sad music that you could also dance to was hardly revolutionary before 2008 but Hercules And Love Affair – who, for all intents and purposes, is Butler – seemed to reboot the genre when they arrived on the scene with their debut album.
Butler’s masterstroke on H&LA’s debut single Blind was to rope in Antony Hegarty. What on paper sounded like a horrific idea – turning someone best known for experimental, baroque pop masterpieces into a disco diva – was a stroke of genius. The contrast between Hegarty’s mournful vocals and Butler’s expertly programmed beats was a startling one, and the quality of the songs on display on the band’s debut album (with a revolving cast of vocalists) proved that he was no one-trick-pony.
Now, three years on from Hercules & Love Affair’s second album Blue Songs, comes The Feast Of The Broken Heart, and this time around, John Grant has joined the ever-shifting collective. He’s only featured on two tracks but his shadow hangs heavy over the whole album. Coming hot on the heels of his own foray into electronic music with the brilliant, Biggi Viera of Gus Gus produced, Pale Green Ghosts, it’s no surprise that Grant sounds completely at home being part of Butler’s supporting cast.
Grant features on the standout track I Tried To Talk To You, a soulful, piano-heavy number that recalls the glory days of early house music. It’s Grant who provides the emotional connection, singing about his HIV diagnosis and as with Hegarty a few years back, the difference between Grant’s deep, rich voice and Butler’s sparkling production sounds spine-tingling. It’s enough to hear Grant sadly and wistfully croon “I’ll take away your pain, I’ll take away with the sting,” but when it’s combined with a celebratory groove, it sounds unstoppable.
Grant isn’t the only vocalist on The Feast Of The Broken Heart. Krystle Warren, a US blues singer who’s one of Rufus Wainwright‘s regular touring partners, shows up on the startling My Offence, which could easily lay claim to be the best feminist disco anthem of the year. Taking its title (and a line in the song – “my essence is my offence”) from a Germaine Greer quote, it’s Butler’s attempt to reclaim and celebrate the word ‘cunt’, using a repeated refrain of “let yourself feel cunt”. It’s a song that easily, and quickly, gets underneath your skin.
There’s also an achingly soulful and smouldering vocal from Warren on The Light, one of the best songs on the album, featuring samples, bleeps, an eerie slide guitar, while Grant also reappears on the pounding, almost industrial, The Liberty. There’s further excellent vocal work from Gustaphe and Rouge Mary throughout the album, while Butler effortlessly makes the work sound like a coherent whole rather than just a rag-bag collection of vocalists.
Gustaphe, in particular, sounds particularly powerful on his tracks. A skinny white Belgian man with the enormous voice of a black US soul diva, his performances on That’s Not Me and especially Do You Feel The Same are pretty extraordinary. Both tracks hark back to the house sound to the early ’90s, but thanks to Butler, they still sound bang up to date.
The Feast Of The Broken Heart isn’t a perfect album – some tracks like 5.43 To Freedom and Think feel more half-sketched experimentation than fully formed songs (although still great to dance to), and the album’s final song The Key feels more like filler than anything, ensuring that the record fizzles out rather than ends on a flourish. Yet there’s more than enough contained within to confirm Butler’s genius at resurrecting the early spirit of house music. This will be the soundtrack to many a party over the summer months.