Where other electronica whizzes chase dance microgenres down futuristic blind alleys, Norman “Fatboy Slim” Cook mines riffs from every era like a hip-hop DJ. His big beat kicks down the velvet-rope exclusivity of drum-and-bass or two-step garage to welcome everyone, rockers and funkers included. “I’m gonna hold my cool, ’cause the music rules,” P-Funk’s Bootsy Collins states in “Weapon of Choice” on Fatboy Slim’s new album, Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars.
Cook hasn’t given up the dance-floor stomps that made him a million-seller with “The Rockafeller Skank,” “Praise You” and the 1998 album that held them, You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby. His new album has its own catch phrases — “What the fuck,” “Push the tempo,” “Retox the freak in me” — with happy, gimmicky tracks to match, full of giddy anachronisms that could be called “retronica.”
But even a party animal can sprout ambition. Following through on the gospel in “Praise You,” the album moves from physical urges to spiritual needs. It begins by leering through “Talking Bout My Baby,” and goes clubbing with chant-topped techno (“Star 69”) and tranced-out Jim Morrison (“Sunset [Bird of Prey]”). In “Love Life,” Macy Gray rides a squelchy, neo-P-Funk track, making sultry double entendres from lists, including the alphabet: “Gonna D ya, if I E ya, ’cause I wanna F ya.” Danceable riffs ricochet through “Ya Mama” and “Mad Flava,” with fuzzed guitars, buzzed keyboards and voices from raps to dance-hall growls to filtered loops. “Weapon of Choice” piles up vocal samples in a syncopated crossfire worthy of the BaBenzele pygmies.
Yet as the festivities peak, Cook seeks a higher plane. Putting looped rhythms behind a preacher (nineteen years after David Byrne and Brian Eno did), he revs up the Rev. W. Leo Daniels in “Drop the Hate” with double-time drums and sputtering synthesizers. Gray returns singing a club-going believer’s promise — “All of your demons will wither away/Ecstasy comes, and they cannot stay” — over gospel piano chords (sampled from Bill Withers) that get mixed with Hare Krishna finger cymbals and electroboogie zaps.
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The eleven-minute finale, “Song for Shelter,” megamixes the album’s first two songs into a meditation on unity and spirit, “as if Jesus was a DJ himself,” moving from house thump to three minutes of beat-free chordal mantra to a closing chant. The song is overextended, and the album isn’t as much flat-out fun as You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby. But Cook isn’t just partying on. He’s partying to transcend.