Photo Credit: Johannes Lovund
Kygo, Norwegian DJ, songwriter, and producer, has returned to the playing field with his third full-length LP, titled Golden Hour. Building on the tropical house-lite vibes that have catapulted him to the upper echelons of the EDM stratosphere, Golden Hour finds itself getting comfortable with simply being comfortable – nothing here is designed to offend, provoke, or even question the listener. As a record, start-to-finish, it feels a bit like taking a trip to daydrink and float down the river with a group of friends: as the journey begins, you know exactly where it’s going to end and how long it’s going to take, but after six hours the heat and alcohol take their toll and you wind up completely exhausted, bewildered as to why you even decided to float the river again.
Other high-energy electronic records dropped during this tumultuous political period have benefitted from guided artistic vision and strict control. Golden Hour isn’t quite as lucky, and winds up more tone-deaf as a result. Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, The Weeknd’s After Hours, and Lady Gaga’s Chromatica, three of 2020’s biggest and most bombastic, pop-focused releases project full ranges of emotion at an exhilarating pace while also addressing poignant cultural issues. Meanwhile, Golden Hour glides along like a floating innertube unable to accelerate out of monotony. It’s also been less than 18 months since a completely different (but also pop-leaning) Golden Hour won Album of the Year at the Grammys, and the lifespan of that Kacey Musgraves record isn’t quite over yet, further complicating the landing for Kygo’s album.
Kygo’s status in the music industry positions him to collaborate with nearly anyone he wants and he runs away with that privilege on Golden Hour, tying in anyone and everyone from OneRepublic to party rap prince Tyga to the late Whitney Houston. Reliance on other contributing vocalists to shape a record is not a death knell necessarily, and can shape a record by a producer into a complex and diverse concept album (see Mark Ronson’s 2019 effort Late Night Feelings). But on Golden Hour, the crutch-like reliance on 20 guest artists across 18-songs takes away all momentum and snatches every opportunity for Kygo to shine on his own.
Take the remix of Houston’s cover of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”, released nearly a year before Kygo’s record: it’s nothing to attribute the strongest vocal performance on the record to a deceased artist (it is Whitney, after all), but in execution, the song feels empty and almost defamatory. Kygo’s production rarely translates to recorded music with the same gusto of a sledgehammering beat at a live set. Here, it feels like we’re picked up and dropped again repeatedly without any real goal in mind. “Higher Love” in itself, especially as performed by Houston, is a song of titanic joy and elatedness, and Kygo’s remix strips most of that away.
More than any credited guest, Golden Hour owes its sound to another deceased legend, Avicii. Kygo and Avicii’s stories are intertwined; Kygo has mentioned Avicii as his biggest influence in becoming a DJ and producing music, and Kygo was tapped to remix Coldplay’s Avicii-helmed single, “Midnight”, from the band’s record Ghost Stories in 2014. Then, due to health concerns Avicii dropped out of his mainstage performance at TomorrowLand the same year, to be replaced by Kygo. Kygo gained prominence in large part due to his remixes of Avicii and Major Lazer songs that mellowed them out and made them more palatable to a broader audience.
It’s not to say his existence is beholden to the success of Avicii, but where Avicii was more of a pioneer, Kygo has consistently taken the position of a devoted fan who emulates. Several songs on Golden Hour sound like they could have been cut from Avicii’s genre-bending 2013 record True, where country music and EDM united in a somewhat questionable marriage. Golden Hour strains the texture out of those songs to create more simple outlines with less-memorable vocal performances. Even on “Someday” with Zac Brown, who can typically be counted on to create a memorable folk-drenched vocal arrangement, the song suffers for a lack of cohesion.
The brightest spot on the record might be “Broken Glass”, Kygo’s collaboration with German pop princess Kim Petras. The production feels like the slightest reach out of his comfort zone, and Petras nails the vocal with the fiery charisma that she brings to every performance. The build is complemented with, rather than distracted by, chopped-up vocal loops and that oh-so-essential KP “Woo-Ah!” calling card. The song is still quickly forgotten once it’s over, not unlike the record as a whole.
Three LPs into his career and each no more distinct than its predecessor, Kygo finds himself at a critical turning point. Senior acts have diversified and evolved to capture a more diverse audience (Calvin Harris, Major Lazer) and younger acts like Marshmello have leap-frogged Kygo for a seat atop the EDM throne. A major pop act releasing a hook-filled album of bangers while the world is at standstill feels like a revolt, like a blast of fresh air and a ray of hope. But at this moment, when EDM festivals sporting six-figure crowds seem distant, the right move for Kygo might have been to wait it out a little longer.