The impending return of live music events such as EDC and Outside Lands marks a prime opportunity for electronic dance music, or EDM, to make its way back to the dance floor.
Enter 32-year-old EDM producer Zhu, whose music is almost sure to be present at one of these future extravaganzas. You may recognize him from his last-call club hit “Faded,” which lost at the 2014 Grammys to a then-inescapable Clean Bandit, or from charting singles with acts such as Partywithray and Tame Impala. He’s been on a mission as of late, imagining a world reunited in one large, unforgettable rave.
We finally have the result of Zhu’s vision, a new LP titled Dreamland 2021, designed to grace the live music circuit as crowds flock to festival grounds once more. It’s a supposedly noble, if not wholly original concept that relies heavily on convincing execution in order to sell its premise, and on that front it entirely fails. Zhu’s intended score for a world bursting back to life is filled with some of the blandest, forgettable dance music in recent memory. It’s not even the first album to be called “Dreamland” in the past year, and it’s far from the best.
The soundscape in which Dreamland 2021 lives is one of bleak techno and deep house beats, utilizing moody atmosphere to try to captivate and mesmerize as the album twists and turns. Rather than playing out like some sort of intended gothic EDM odyssey, it comes across as painfully overdramatic. Right off the bat, overblown bass and drum hits clobber the ominous production of opener “Lost It,” while Zhu’s vocals — airy and washed out — try their best to create tension. The initially woozy feel of “Distant Lights” is rendered null as the song turns corny, offset by noticeably on-the-nose lyrics about missing concerts and generally being sad. This is followed by an eye roll-inducing spoken-word outro which plainly states the album’s thesis: “I don’t believe that music, dancing/ The freedom of expression will be suppressed for much longer/ I can’t, that’s against human nature/ I believe that the future is near.” The album is full of insipid lyricism such as this, hindering the listening experience when its primary goal is to make listeners move.
Dance music has never been the best vehicle to convey messages. “Sky Is Crying,” featuring Malaysian singer Yuna, is the most egregious example of this, a standard club track doubling as a woefully misguided attempt at a call for unity. The song’s accompanying music video features anonymous silhouettes dancing in the rain as images of articles detailing government mistrust and racism during the COVID-19 pandemic emerge, as if to lazily suggest that Zhu’s music will bring the world together. With subpar 3-D animation and a drab black-and-white palette, it’s an unfortunate reminder of the album’s sense of self-importance.
Rather than creating a wholly original world of its own, Dreamland 2021 borrows aesthetically from more successful peers, specifically retuning the sound of The Weeknd for the club. Across the album, Zhu sings as though he’s doing his best impression of Tesfaye; space out just enough and you might mistake songs such as “Good4U” or “I Need That” as belonging to some remix of last year’s After Hours. But lacking the same amount of substance, the style ultimately falls short. Too often, Dreamland 2021 comes across as that album’s cheaper, forgettable EDM equivalent.
Still, there are some compelling moments: Channel Tres’ breezy, nonchalant delivery flows well over the groove of “How Does It Feel,” and the catchy call-and-response chorus suggests some level of chemistry between him and Zhu. “Only,” featuring Tinashe, does the album’s best job of capturing restless dancefloor lust. And guest vocalists Arctic Lake provide evidence on the alluring “Yours” that Zhu’s sound is suited better when paired with artists other than himself.
Ultimately, Dreamland 2021 wants to be more than it actually is. And though you can’t blame Zhu for trying, lofty ambitions don’t compensate for barely passable quality. Filler will never be killer.