For being one of disco’s most important figures, Giorgio Moroder has never had moves. On a French TV performance of his borderline-novelty hit “Looky Looky” in 1969 — just shy of his 30th birthday — the Italian producer and musician shows off a groovy sunflower scarf and a mustache that requires more maintenance than it’s probably worth, but it becomes clear over the course of the performance that he has no idea what to do with his hands, feet, really any of his limbs. His awkward finger-pointing and fist-pumping during recent performances — starting in 2013 with his first-ever DJ set for the Red Bull Music Academy Festival — are not a symptom of age, but rather, an old habit.
The man who pioneered “the sound of the future” has now reached his own, and at the age of 75, Moroder releases his first solo LP in 30 years this week. Titled Déjà Vu, the album centers around collaborations with current stars of pop. There are premature legends of the Vegas stage (Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue), songwriters who keep Top 40 weird (Sia and Charli XCX), young electro-pop sirens (Foxes and Marlene), and male singer-songwriters newly peddled by the major labels (Mikky Ekko and Matthew Koma).
This last category gives Moroder particular trouble on Déjà Vu, which should serve as a victory lap of his late-career re-appreciation that began with Grand Theft Auto soundtracks in the early ’00s and peaked with Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories two years ago. His collaboration with Koma — best known for singing the hook on a minor Zedd hit (“Spectrum”) — is cookie-cutter disco that nicks its only interesting line from Elvis Costello (something about angels’ red dancing shoes), and its most compelling musical aspect from Chic’s Nile Rodgers (the signature guitar jangle that helped “Get Lucky” shimmy to the top of the Hot 100). As if Koma’s “Tempted” weren’t bad enough, there’s the sweeping-strings Ekko ballad “Don’t Let Go,” a cross between a Calvin Harris album cut and an OneRepublic bonus track. Frankly, these newcomers don’t deserve to breath the same studio air as Giorgio, but it’s worth remembering that even in his prime, Moroder took on overtly mainstream projects that lacked the taste one would expect from someone with his vision.
As he explains on the Daft Punk track “Giorgio by Moroder,” he cut his teeth in German discothèques as the 1970s were just getting started. As the decade progressed and disco shifted from European dance clubs to American Bandstand, Moroder became a pioneer of the genre by experimenting with synthesizers and vocoders to robotic effect. This sound would go on to influence entire generations of house music producers, but in the late ‘70s, Moroder’s electronic techniques were paired with Summer, one of disco’s most talented vocalists. Together they created songs that even rock’n’roll fans could get behind: the sexual odyssey “Love to Love You Baby,” the rock crossover hit “Hot Stuff,” and of course, the immortal call from the future, “I Feel Love.”
Moroder produced a number of other disco singers aiming to be the next Summer for Oasis/Casablanca Records during this era (my personal favorite is Suzi Lane’s “Ooh, La La”). Minor dance hits at the time, Moroder’s non-Summer collaborations weren’t exactly game-changers, but oftentimes rather, one- or two-hit wonders. All the while he continued releasing his own albums. Some, like 1977’s From Here to Eternity, established the sci-fi electronic style still imitated today — and for good reason: who thinks to run a hi-hat through a vocoder?
From 1978 to 1990, Moroder composed and/or produced 14 soundtracks, which ranged from the 1980s’ most iconic films (Flashdance, Top Gun, Scarface) to the Golden Raspberry-nominated Stallone action flick Over the Top. He won three Oscars in this time and mounted the long-attempted restoration of the classic German dystopian film Metropolis with a soundtrack featuring Freddie Mercury and Loverboy. Blondie wrote “Call Me” after Moroder called them with an instrumental, which he intended as the theme for American Gigolo. Even by ‘70s and ‘80s standards, Moroder was prolific — but not all of it was exactly good. It seems that problem plagues him still today.
By working with just anyone, Moroder does himself a disservice. Déjà Vu is a fun listen throughout, but its most tasteless moments weigh down buoyant hits and bonafide camp from Sia, Charli, Minogue, and most notably, Britney. Giorgio makes Spears sounds as human as she has in years by making her sound like a fembot on purpose, for a cover of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.” Not only is this vocoder-heavy rendition among the best covers of anything heard this decade, it proves that the solution to Britney’s deadpan is to turn her into a hook girl for EDM bangers.
Déjà Vu would justify its existence even if the “Tom’s Diner” cover were its sole highlight, but Charli and Sia offer up what should be huge signature hits in the attitude-filled “Diamonds” and the catchy midtempo title track, respectively. Minogue’s “Right Here, Right Now” turns up the funk on her usual thing for one of her best vocal performances in recent history. When Kylie takes her falsetto out for a spin on the chorus, it’s not hard to hear a touch of Summer’s soft moans on “I Feel Love” — but really, is that any surprise? With modern-day Giorgio Moroder, you’re always going back to the future.