Album Review: Beckett – Five

If the aim of music production is to generate a transcendent experience, then Beckett is one of the premier artists in the synthwave genre. With sparkling melodies, infectious rhythms, and irresistible vocal hooks, Beckett creates a musical voyage on Five that transports the listener to sun-soaked beaches, neon-hued dance clubs, and thrilling sporting events. Five feels like a carefree weekend spent with best friends. It is the soundtrack to an unforgettable vacation, and it captures the essence and nostalgia of the ‘80s better than efforts from nearly all of Beckett’s contemporaries.

The sensation that Five is the soundtrack to something special should come as no surprise given Beckett’s interest in the work of Harold Faltermeyer, one of the kings of ‘80s movie soundtracks. The influence of the German composer’s funky, highly melodic pieces from movies like Beverly Hills Cop and Fletch shine through clearly on the recording, especially on entries like “North Avenue,” “Take it to the Danger Zone,” and the album’s opener, “Air Games ‘88.”

Other conspicuous influences present themselves on “AirGames ‘88.” The song is a lucid and perfectly designed tribute to inspirational sports anthems of the past, including the Rocky IV soundtrack and the theme for the 1988 Winter Olympics, David Foster’s “Winter Games.” “AirGames ‘88” confidently sets the tone for the remainder of the recording with its highly optimistic attitude, and it feels like the musical equivalent of winning Olympic gold in every event.

The piece expands the AirGames soundtrack, a recurring subject on Beckett albums that includes “AirGames ‘84” on Retrograde and”AirGames ‘86″ on Primetime. The music of AirGames is Beckett’s conceptual tribute to the popular ‘80s and early ‘90s themes of fictional, futuristic sports leagues of the near future, in this case combining jetpacks and football for an extreme sporting event broadcast live from The Red Planet, Mars. It’s an enticing bit of lore that adds a layer of authenticity and detail to Beckett’s beautiful compositions.

The high level of success on “AirGames ‘88” is followed by a spirited, saxophone-infused offering on “PLAY.” The buoyant synthwave track generates a captivating sense of freedom and youthful nostalgia, a feeling that anything is possible, and the masterful contributions from Simon Reynolds on sax and Luca Ricardo on guitar help “PLAY” stand out as one of the album’s most endearing entries.

Beckett nimbly shifts gears on the third track, “We Can Get Down,” which sets aside the sunny synthwave sound of its preceding tracks for a slab of electro funk complete with robotic backing vocals. Leading the song is the crystal clear voice of Rachael Jones, which calls out from the densely orchestrated rhythm alongside a groove-worthy guitar contribution from Luca Ricardo. With its meticulously constructed composition, dancefloor attitude, and hook-minded melodies, “We Can Get Down” is a skillful creation that maintains the album’s pattern of excellence while demonstrating Beckett’s songwriting flexibility.

A small hiccup arrives on “Spend Your Summer,” another track featuring the alluring vocals of Rachael Jones. The song’s intro and verse sections are subtle, beguiling pieces that offer real promise for the song’s potential, though a chunky and saccharine chorus burdened by a repetitive guitar riff disrupts the flow of the piece and quickly wears out its welcome, especially upon repeat listens. Fortunately, the track is buffered by the beautiful instrumental entry “North Avenue” on one side and the humble “Partly a Miracle” on the other.

“North Avenue” is arguably the album’s most synthwave-centric track, bringing to mind the high-spirited compositions of Mitch Murder, Phaserland, and Highway Superstar. The song is well placed in the fourth spot on the album, strengthening the album’s diversity with its position between “We Can Get Down” and “Spend the Summer.” “Partly a Miracle” is the album’s most straightforward composition and features some genuinely retro vocal phrasing from DIMH. Despite the song’s pleasant overall constitution, the relative lack of detail in the instrumentation makes it the most unremarkable contribution on Five.

Fortunately, the album’s strongest entry arrives on the very next track, “Take it to the Danger Zone,” on which Harold Faltermeyer’s influence returns to prominence beneath a lively vocal contribution from Oceanside 85. The song’s succinct percussion, funky attitude, and strong vocals make it one of the most classically ‘80s pieces of pop music on the recording, hinting at the freestyle vibe of Nu Shooz and the more mainstream sounds of early releases from Madonna and Paula Abdul. Among the song’s many successes are a handful of exceptional instrumental breaks, and the amount of variety and depth in the track makes it one that improves through consecutive listens.

A pair of handsome tracks close out the album, including another classic instrumental synthwave piece in “South Beach” that features beautiful melodies and engaging rhythmic elements. The album wraps up with the introspective “Time Slides,” which is easily the most contemplative song on the recording. A subtle electric guitar rhythm helps guide the song, and Beckett’s vocal delivery has a touch of Kenny Loggins in it. The result feels like an understated spiritual successor to Al Corley’s “Square Rooms.” It finishes Five on a suitably reflective note, and through its contrast with the bright, anthemic tone of “AirGames ‘88,” “Time Slides” gives the album a sense of meaningful progression.

By the time Beckett’s Five reaches its conclusion, the album has delivered a wealth of music with standout features. Tracks like “North Avenue” and “South Beach” fall near the center of synthwave music, while “We Can Get Down” and “Take it to the Danger Zone” offer more diverse selections with authentically ‘80s elements worked into the mix. Beckett has carefully organized his pieces to complement one another as the album progresses, and the recording never once dips into redundancy. The chorus of “Spend the Summer” stands as the lone rough patch in a shimmering sea of synth nostalgia, and it is easily forgiven and overlooked on the strength of its surrounding tracks.

Just as the neon-drenched artwork that adorns most synthwave releases is a digressive interpretation of the zeitgeist of the ‘80s and not an accurate tribute to the era’s actual color palettes and design elements, so too does most synthwave music never quite align with the attitude and feeling of ‘80s pop music. Beckett is a remarkable exception to this, and his careful study of the sounds of the past provides an authentic and immensely satisfying evolution of the music that can please fans of all eras.

Established followers of Beckett will find their interest in his music reaffirmed by the latest offering, while newcomers will likely scramble to add past releases to their collection. Beckett accomplishes what few creators in any genre are able to do by presenting an intimate and personal listening experience that generates images and sensations of another time and place. The result is an experiential listening event that feels like a collection of tangible moments in time. The palpable retro reality generated on Five is a joy to visit the first time and soon becomes a familiar space that listeners will want to return to time and again.

Rating: 90 / 100

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