Old buildings and local hookers will always get respectable if they can just hang around long enough. The same rule applies to musical genres once damned to be misremembered as the death of rock-n-roll. No side-eye here, but we’re looking at you, disco. When people talk of a “return to the ‘80s” in fashion, a “retro feel” in interior design, or (goddess forbid) attach “-core” to the end of some otherwise innocuous descriptor of bygone aesthetica to indicate that it has now been properly appropriated by the Insta imbeciles, the cool people across the globe are generally sighing: “Yeah but see, you’re a fool if you ever left in the first place and you’re also a Tryhard if you think you can glom on later and have it mean the same.” All the holy while, out in the back of beyonds, where everything cool bubbles out of the brain broth of the true creators, the unbought and unbossed, there are people who really did never leave or were spiritually born to a time they did not actually get physically born for. One such hungry hunter is the Reading-born and ready-brave SG Lewis – singer, songwriter, and producer extraordinaire – who has, as of February 19th, gifted the current groove genome known as the “disco renaissance” with a highly alluring piece of hypnotic hypoxia called times via Republic Records. Just in the nick of time, too. Surely, we can all use some laser levity and mirror balls to go with our 2021 return to IRL culture!
Don’t let the lower-case title fool you. If times is the undisclosed club du jour and Lewis’s indelible guestlist of choice collaborators are the dancehall freaks waiting at the side-door for the basement afterparty, we’ll need to send out for more velvet rope immediately. Make no mistake, this record states its case in all caps on every song. It certainly is not every artist that casually works in exalted locales like Abbey Road with icons like Chic’s mercury-melting Nile Rodgers before they themselves even have a debut album out. There are even fewer who do all of this in an effort to salute and resuscitate New York’s fabled disco dens of fleeting and fugitive counter-chronologies, places like Paradise Garage and The Loft. And yet there is not an ounce of entourage effect anywhere on times. This record belongs as overtly and exclusively to Lewis as the instant understanding of its place-origins will to those who cherish and study club music as much as he clearly does.
To write about times the way it plainly deserves is to flout the cardinal rule of every secret treehouse there ever was, and certainly of first-wave rave culture: don’t tell anybody about it. Don’t let it get co-opted by the jerks. Just ask Ibiza what happens when you do. However, like all the best bangers eventually do, times will out – and with powerful purpose – even if we still cannot do the same in many of our favorite sweat-baptized sound sanctuaries just yet. With only a preliminary EP entitled Yours in 2016 alongside a conceptual triptych of nightscape EPs called Dusk, Dark, and Dawn released between 2018-2019 to recommend him, SG Lewis has already long ago established a renegade reputation in his art form – as all the greats must. He knocks the nose off the sculpture, so to speak, when it comes to production, sonic fit, and humble-yet-hardcore hitmaking. Electronica. Disco. Nu-Disco. House. Acid House. Techno. Trance. Breakbeat. It is all happening in the same soap cupboard, and Lewis seems to instinctually refract a useful knowledge of this on every track of times.
The difference between original underground dance culture and what has become mainstream EDM is that the foundational scene never harbored a reliance on “God knows what kind of a deliberate freak-out,” to steal from our favorite crusty ole chiseler, Mr. Hunter S. Thompson. Shyamalanian twists were not on the primary syllabus of synth music back in the day. There was no mandatory “bass drop” in the beginning, but there were little Alps to be found at separate-and-together times in every single person’s experience of the same sonic evening. SG Lewis shows himself to be a master cartographer of these individual mountaintops at every opportunity. However, as he also makes clear nearly everywhere on this record, the party almost never started in the evening back when all this low-end landscape was first fjorded – and still does not in all the places where it continues to thrive best. That is a key piece of kit to reckon with beforehand in any attempt to appreciate where times will not hesitate to take you.
Drugs and dance are different in the day, and anybody that was there at the blastoff of the beat-driven era knows that real raves always tended to begin and end in daylight – albeit on two different, possibly-but-not-necessarily adjacent calendar days. It was ritualistic. It was ancient like Druidic moon rites. The specific dance space SG Lewis is conjuring here on times implicitly invokes this daylight frequency hopping and hearkens back to those points of departure wherein the shared intention was much less about larks and diversions than it was about church, school, sacrificial altar, birthing table, milking parlor of the sublime, and collusive confession box. It was sein und werden (being and becoming) – but with satyrs. A hedonistic party, yes. A holy purging and the sinking of the internal Bismarck too. Days of diamond dust and Calvados, sure, but the warehouse was your temple, and the tempo your Terpsichore.
Gazing back across his impressive resume, one can quickly observe that SG Lewis has a singularly relaxed door policy on audio alliances and partnerships, but the stiffest possible dress code as relates to succinct danceability. It means he can do sugar-high pop without a teaspoon’s worth of conformist dewiness, give it an upholstered urbanity that lends it the look of something like the offspring of a Venus flytrap and a bat flower, and make it all look as easy as falling off a log. He can be Abba and Freestylers in the same set and lose cachet with neither. Searching for unity by exclusion of the “other” is just playground politics, after all.
It is worth noting how, historically, pop freely flows into dance music without ever injecting the same kind of perceived dilution of character as it can when it brushes against more frigid formats. The term “crossover” becomes utterly redundant here because club music unabashedly claims it all from the outset. If it spins like a flat Ferris wheel, it doesn’t matter if it’s got gigot sleeves and wears bobbin lace. If it moves your ass, it tops the class. This is the rare magic of house music in general. There is both no snobbery at all and all the best kinds of snobbery at the same time.
What is funny about disco, as compared to other musical forms that come in and out of fashion in a more cyclical manner, is that it recurs in a Whack-a-Mole style all its own. It routinely rears its head in the most divisive and hilariously wonderful places despite its many club-bearing detractors waiting like Captain Caveman to wail on it. Whether it is Victoria Monet’s Experience or Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia – both of which feature Lewis’ luxe hand in finest form – disco is dominant once again. Both Dave Grohl and Doja Cat have been expertly channeling some bitchin’ Bee Gees mojo this year, and it is now certifiably undeniable that we feel a collective desire to dance like the fire in the grate.
When dancehall doors are open, a lot of people go out at night merely to momentarily enjoy the illusion of escape from their drab and largely overlooked lives. A great many others do it just because the escapers do and because it remains an unquestioned social construct perhaps ineptly attached to shared notions of “youth.” Then there are the bold brassers who go out religiously not to escape any piranha-like problems, but for the express purpose of getting to the grit of the worst-best of those mangy matters and themselves.
Those folks will make you want to toss on a bit of mink and crocodile, proudly proclaim your unapologetic allegiance not to Saturday Night Fever, but rather to its outcast younger sibling, Staying Alive. You’ll then freely disclaim “You know what I wanna do? I wanna STRUT!” just as you cinematically burst out of the double doors of some decrepit rehearsal studio and onto the confettied streets of night-time Manhattan. SG Lewis is decidedly those folks. God, the universe, Travolta, and this perennially glitter-inflected writer couldn’t possibly love him more for it.
Anyone who courageously repurposes private moments for the public arena is as good as effing elected, as far as some of us are concerned. Those like SG Lewis that do it out of a keen ken for a world they never knew and as tribute to the music galaxy they’re trying to keep alive and insist on making it slam? Well. There’s a special nook on Jerry Hall’s slinky lap for those clever confidants.
Take the opening track of times, the parallel-titled, big T “Time” (feat. Rhye) as a starting example. This song exists somewhere between 90s House and a harmonic honeycomb. As an opener, it has whole libraries to say. Its “Don’t waste this time” refrain is not just Covid-centric but proper advice for any life. The vocal samples come courtesy of the divine Dennis Edwards’ “Don’t Look Any Further” and could stand alone as a one-character story that announces the whole point of the rest of the record.
“Feed The Fire“ (feat. Lucky Daye) feels ultra-slick and hides the sweet underneath the beat, like caramel under creme brûlée. “Back To Earth” is for the kind of night that climbs up itself. It’s all terracotta arabesque and the best sound-laden incarnation of that aquatic-ascent feeling that always signals the real ignition of the feral festivities I’ve heard since Joey Beltram’s immortal “Energy Flash” of 1990.
Aidan Cullen directed the video for falconine first-single “One More“ (feat. Nile Rodgers) and the live performance of that song is a teleportation device straight back to the ravetastic nightclub of your DMT dreams. Even the insightful lyrical reference to “friends in the bathroom stall” says it all – isn’t one forever sort of halfway drunk-looking for friends who disappeared to the loo what seems like ages ago but was probably just five minutes past at parties like this? The rhythm of Rodgers’ signature guitar “chucking” is the accelerator pedal on the alto clef Aston Martin here.
“Heartbreak on the Dancefloor” (feat. Frances) fills the air around it with an audible interpretation of those terpenes of need that take over, despite your best attempts at anosmia, whenever you unexpectedly encounter one of Gotye’s infamous somebodies that you used to know in your trance terrain. That Lewis follows this raw diaristic display with the conversational voice of famed sound-system architect Alex Rosner expounding on the biology of the beat and the chemistry between humans and harmony in the otherwise instrumental “Rosners Interlude” is no small stroke of creative genius.
On the subject of “Chemicals,” times’ song of the same name allows you to enjoy the hallucinogenic synth staircase built here by The Neptunes’ Chad Hugo whilst feeling like your ears are getting sprayed by the backdraft of a waterfall. The brilliant lyric “Might be seeing double, but I need you both” should be on a complimentary t-shirt handed out to drunk lovers everywhere. However, the highest high of all that times will dose you comes in the form of “Impact“ (feat. Robyn and Channel Tres). Yes, Robyn – that spinning Centifolia rose from Sweden, the real and true dancing queen, still living on her own vice’s beat better than any of them. And good gracious at Channel Tres, his sparkling sandpaper voice all lettuce-edged and prowling with serrated seduction. If you don’t jump straight up out of your squidgy sofa to shimmy along with these two, you are indeed a cyborg.
“All We Have” (feat. Lastlings) is what would have happened if you could have woken up mid-dream in roughly 1997 and placed a bookmark in your pillow to keep your place there, when iridescent cadence patterns like this were the passion-prose of every day and all the nights that really mattered. This exact song and its itinerant feeling pre-existed back then and it lives equally as vividly now, which is all we have – just as its interior message knowingly asserts. Good on Mr. Lewis for getting some auric Aussies in that batter’s box and then leaving us with “Fall,” this album’s come-down dawn song that shares its spirit with Chemical Brothers/Beth Orton classic “Where Do I Begin.”
Nothing is temporary or disposable about a throwaway beat when the right atmosphere has been fortuitously forged around it, and it is here that Lewis’s true mastery comes most visibly to bear. He curates moments that are the stuff of nine-days’ wonder. He is admirably concerned with progression and lives between the twin dream worlds of pop and House. His pace awareness is that of both a percussionist and a DJ – never impulsive but extremely intuitive about bass lines and sub-rhythms. Yet he manages all this with a kind of Head Boy merriment that is every bit as infectious as any of his unavoidably effective grooves.
Staying up for days and imbibing mind-altering substances (including and especially music) has vastly disparate outcomes for different people. Some run quite mad. Some go to the hospital. Some sleep it off inside a champagne-splashed speaker and lie about it later to their stallfed friends with the encoded ideologies. Others turn into their most poetic selves and are forever transformed. SG Lewis does it that last way, and the way the Greeks wanted you to – and also the way the founding parties associated with the inception of underground dance culture fully intended you to back in the early, early 1980s. You are meant to get stone-cold high, baby – but not in the banal way of the boredinary people. The spiritual way. The elation, dreamland, jubilation, transport, and rapture way. That way that forges permanent connections and seared-in memories in mere flashes of occasion – human junctures that are foul-mouthed, beautiful, and inviolate. All those things which have become so publicly verboten in this chary age’s new piety and its string-bean proportions.
Focalized under the crumpled tent of the Anytown weekend intoxication circus, much of the new music emerging today under the blanket title of “electronica” and helmed by one-year wonders never comes close to meeting club music’s eternal goal of inciting frenzy, enlightenment, or ecstasy, and it all begins to look and feel very like an opulent bull fight. In less skillful hands, what is called modern-day disco can feel like it was autofilled by scraping links or ran off in haste on a risograph for “vintage” effect. It gets too stymied by intent, too stodgy, and ends up floating just about as well as a horseshoe. What is glaringly lost in so many of the upcycled swatches of contemporary disco is the full and embraced understanding that it’s super cool to be uncool. Yes, a non-ironic blue leisure suit. No, a tongue-in-cheek Studio 54 filter. SG Lewis has proven with times that he lives utterly outside all of this and has made a record that functions like a clandestine epistle to the clubs of the bygone beats. This album is the artifact of a vanished era with the fresh sting of the sudden now.
Never underestimate the power of the outsider feeling. You choose records in DJ culture the way you’d choose a life mate – except with far more introspection, seriousness, and consequences, typically. So much of what goes on at a party is invisible even to the person throwing it, and certainly to posterity. There is tremendous trust associated with leading any crowd. While some may say his window to making the record he initially planned to make closed with the opening of the wide maw of Covid and the subsequent shutting down of the international club scene, that is a performatively redactive reading that will cause you to miss the glory here. It is true that the original title would have been Good Times, a capital-letter wink to a favored Chic song, but, like the unique velvet of Lewis’ disco touch, times is about something far more subtle than candy-coated Saturdays.
times exists as a form of sonic occasion dressing where the club in question is your best days. Despite the pan-awfulness of the pandemic, they remain round-the-clock accessible right there at your ears, and times sees them draped in the riding habit of leaves and light. SG Lewis has made you a record that sounds like kissing in the wild. Even if the industrial jungles wherein that best happens are still not open to capacity, this album most assuredly is – and aurochs and tarpan are not extinct here either! Is it cosmic coincidence that so much on times effortlessly carries one back to Thomas Bangalter’s pre-Daft Punk project, the short-lived but ever-storied Stardust, and is helpfully here for us in conjunction with our favorite space-rock robots of all time retiring? SG Lewis will remind you of Paris more than once on this record, and every time for the better.
We have likely all had those dancefloor romances that lasted the length of exactly one synth-infused solfeggio. In times, SG Lewis offers you a record willing to be the mirage muse, the ride-or-die bestie you tell it to later, and your ride home when you’re too buzzed to care about the locality of your missing shoes. Because, you see kids, you want to take a page out of Mr. Lewis’s book and be the thermostat, not the thermometer. Feeling nothing is totally a freemium and it’s time to let the disco teach you how not to be disturbed by delight. So, don’t just sit there like you’ve been taxidermied! Go shake it out like Gloria Gaynor with SG Lewis for immediate euphoria in these strange (and all other) times.