I feel bad, but not too bad, that my everlasting image of Calvin Harris will be that Instagram pic of him sharing a giant inflatable pool swan with his then-girlfriend Taylor Swift. Celebrity pop hitmaker, gazillionaire DJ, buff and benevolent brosef, teetotaling Scotsman. He is rich, handsome, talented, boring. Three outta four ain’t bad. His pure essence was captured on June 10, 2015, and deleted a year later, almost to the day, post-breakup. I mourn not for him, nor for them, but for America. (And Scotland.)
I’m linking to the picture again; please absorb their mutual serenity, and the dignified nonchalance of his salute. They’re swimming in one of those fancy pools whose depth and shape and architecture I find confusing and intimidating. But it sure looks dangerous, as though they could ride that swan right off the cliff behind them. Which is basically what happened. To him. To her. To them. To us.
Empires fade, love wilts, giant inflatable pool swans deflate. (Get a new one for $27.49 via Amazon.) And gazillionaire DJs can’t also be pop hitmakers forever. But this is not Calvin Harris’s day of reckoning. His new album, Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, is a lovely, vapid, gently swaggering puff of poolside neo-disco-rap, an absurdly star-studded affair that mercifully lacks DJ Khaled’s brand thirst or Gorillaz’s brain-panel-meme abstractions. It turns out that post-tabloid-trauma, Calvin Harris didn’t need to fix his image so much as erase it.
The album is disposable in the best way, a quick burst of 10 celebrity goof-off sessions masterminded by a low-key pop savant who got a small taste of high-profile stardom and found a small taste to be quite enough, thank you. I bet Harris is secretly relieved that this record came out Friday and was thus totally obscured, tabloid-intrigue-wise, by Jay-Z’s 4:44. Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 feels like a sheepish celebrity-ex-boyfriend’s exit strategy — revealing nothing of its headliner other than the gargantuan size of his iPhone contact list — and a blissfully semi-anonymous studio rat’s reentry strategy. Thanks for listening, but forget you ever Googled my name.
His spirit animal, in this regard, is Frank Ocean.
“Slide,” the album’s first single and leadoff track, is my second-favorite 2017 Song of Summer candidate (after Lorde’s “Green Light”), in part for how aloof and spacey and unconcerned it seems with that sort of arms-race gamesmanship. Ocean coos his usual Zen-koan sweet nothings, prizing intimacy over cheap celebrity (“All this jewelry ain’t no use when it’s this dark”), while Migos make cheap celebrity feel intimate (by, in Offset’s case, rhyming gelato, Picasso, nacho, and Rick Ricardo). It’s sublime house music for roofless California beach bums, breezy and woozy. Ocean doesn’t show up again on Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, but his aura sticks around, a guileless and effortless sort of pop-adjacent cool. It makes this record feel like the populist sequel to last year’s Blonde, supplying the soothing choruses and thumping beats Ocean mostly withheld.
“Cash Out” is likewise wonderful, an unrushed G-funk anthem with a bumptious bass line and handclap giddiness that unites all constituencies, all eras. “Party like it’s 1980,” grunts Schoolboy Q; “Let’s party like the ’70s,” croons D.R.A.M. They’re both convincing. Young Thug’s exuberant yelps and Ariana Grande’s lithe coos blend splendidly on “Heatstroke,” with Pharrell Williams as the laid-back mediator; Future sounds as delighted, as unburdened, as human as he has in years on “Rollin’,” amid more house piano, more handclaps, more beach-sunset rapture.
These are far less aggressive and bombastic than the superstar collaborations that first made Harris’s name in America. His defining 2011 Rihanna jam, “We Found Love,” and 2011’s earth-rattling “Feel So Close” are gigantic, operatic crowd-pleasers that helped fuse EDM and chart-topping pop songs in the mainstream imagination. He hasn’t abandoned that bombast entirely, as evidenced by his towering 2016 Rihanna encore, “This Is What You Came For.” But ah, that’s the song he and Swift ending up squabbling over, in public, post-breakup. (Swift’s team leaked that she’d written the song under a pseudonym; Harris got all hacked off and Twitter-ranted about it.)
As part of the pleasantly muted Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 press tour, Harris has atoned for his role in the feud: “It was completely the wrong instinct.” “I’m not good at being a celebrity.” “I’m a positive guy.” But dismissing all that tabloid noise has only strengthened this album’s signal: At its best, Funk Wav feels like the celebrity-overexposure equivalent of a money-laundering operation, a place for hounded superstars to get back to basics, or their version of the basics. Nicki Minaj, for example, sounds very relaxed, and very relieved, on the lightweight “Skrt on Me,” the sort of flimsy and fizzy trifle that Hot 97 DJs hate and the vast majority of the rest of America loves. Nothing here is transcendent, but “lightweight” is precisely what most of the people on this record needed just now.
Which is why the most startling, and carefree, and thus much-welcomed voice on the album is Katy Perry’s. She shows up on “Feels,” a fizzy sorta-duet opposite Pharrell, and while the words she’s singing are recognizably dorky (“Don’t be afraid to catch feels,” etc.), there is none of the straining, flop-sweaty “purposeful pop” that weighed down her own new album, Witness. (The role of hapless 2017 Katy Perry on this song is instead played by the hapless Big Sean, who is the 2017 Katy Perry of the past six years.)
For Harris to team up with his ex-girlfriend’s archenemy is a historic troll move, of course, but it’s striking how unburdened everyone sounds here. There is no more bad blood to spill on Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1. It’s bloodless, weightless. It evaporates on contact. Which makes it perfect for easy summer listening, and a perfect pivot for a guy trying to scrub the “celebrity” part of his status as a celebrity DJ. Harris clearly got the inflatable swan in the breakup, if nothing else. He puts it to good use.