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The first time I saw Electric Guest play was in a Silver Lake living room.
Previewing a batch of new songs off their then-forthcoming 2017 album, Plural, for a room full of music industry folk, Asa Taccone was moved to tears during his first-ever performance of a song with some particularly intense subject matter, soldiering through his unexpectedly emotional reaction with grace. When I bring that moment up earlier this month during a party celebrating the release of the band’s latest album, Kin, at the Gold Digger’s compound in Hollywood, Asa shakes his head ruefully.
What he remembered as an embarrassing moment was a glimpse of humanity that sparked my interest in the band as I found his tenderness impressive. Though I’d initially missed the duo’s debut full-length, Mondo — out in 2012, and produced by none other than Danger Mouse — their second album pointed me toward what their best instincts for golden-era pop and R&B could produce: The lush, jumpy dancehall of “Oh Devil,” the dreamy longing contained in “Dear To Me.”
Those instincts would become even more clear when the duo worked with others, helping produce Portugal. The Man’s massive 2017 hit, “Feel It Still,” and collaborating with Carly Rae Jepsen on “Feels Right,” off her celebrated new album, Dedicated. Over the last two years, Taccone and his musical partner, Matthew Compton, have honed in on the pop sound that has begun to shine through in both their work with others and their strongest songs as Electric Guest, finding an undeniable groove in big, brassy hooks and sunshine-y melodies.
“We were trying to do early Justin Timberlake, but our own version,” Compton said of their new direction, and echoes of Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds definitely permeate their latest record. Kin, out today on Atlantic Records, is the pair’s most straightforward pop record to date, but it comes with the grounding that nearly a decade as an indie band necessarily brings. The quiet vulnerability Asa revealed at their living room show turned out to be something of a premonition, setting the stage for Kin, a masterclass in modern pop that’s anchored by real, genuine emotion.
“We wanted to make a more unapologetic, out-there pop record that hopefully wasn’t void of sentiment,” Taccone explained of Kin a few days later in another Los Angeles living room, when we met up to discuss the album at his house in Echo Park. “Sound-wise, we were hearkening back to those early 2000s pop records, and ultimately, our new record is a slight departure from the last couple. But some people have heard the new songs and commented, ‘oh this is so different,’ when I actually feel like it’s a very natural progression.”
Nothing could’ve been more natural for Taccone than to bring things back around to his hometown. Born and raised in the Bay, the lead single and the first song on the record is “Dollar,” a playful, synthy ode to finding joy in the little things, despite the shadows or problems that might be lurking in the wings. Debuted with a video that doubles as a love letter to his formative years and the people who built him, the visual features a fully-functioning, floating (!) DeLorean, and was directed by Asa’s brother, Jorma Taccone (of The Lonely Island).
“For the ‘Dollar’ video we just pulled a bunch of favors,” Taccone laughed. “Since it was kind of our comeback song, our first new one, I wanted to do a video focused on where I’m from. So my brother shot it, and we just went home to the Bay and had all our friends in it. Everyone did everything for free — even the DeLorean was from a friend of a friend.”
The counterpart to “Dollar” comes in the form of a tongue-in-cheek, ostentatious video for “Play With Me,” a visual that turns over-the-top R&B and rap video tropes on their head, featuring Asa belting out AutoTune’d notes in a blue speedo in front of a decadent pool, dressed to the nines, burying his face in a long-stemmed rose, and even straddling a motorcycle. At the end of the video’s string of flamboyant tropes, the song cuts and Asa breaks his straight-faced persona, throwing back his head in laughter.
The heart of the whole record lies in the space between those two ends of the spectrum — in the contrast between Taccone’s ability to project the pain of a jaded, jilted lover, and his eagerness to laugh at the melodrama. “It’s super uncomfortable time right now, culturally,” he admitted. “I think for this new record we wanted to touch on that, to acknowledge where we’re at. It’s like: Sh*t is hard, life is f*cking hard as hell to wake up every day, to be a human, to be in the United States right now. We’re just in this little moment… but it’s the moment of all of our lives. I still think there’s a way out.”
Sometimes, the way out comes in the form of music that the listener can drop their own meaning into. For Compton, that’s what the songs on Kin offer: The chance to forge his own meaning and adapt the narratives to cope with whatever is going on in his own life.
“There’s certain songs where I feel like Asa is singing about something but when I listen to a song, I don’t necessarily hear that and I create my own narrative in my head,” he explained. “Even if he’s referring to something, the songs let you have a bit of creativity where you can actually apply them to a lot of things in your life. There’s a meditative quality about this music. It can actually help you resolve problems — if it’s a love thing, a friend thing, a family thing or whatever. I think they’re adaptable and there’s a lot you can squeeze out of these songs for yourself.”
That kind of malleability is exactly what makes pop music a political instrument in traumatic times. Whether the songs are centered around joy or pain, or both, they have the ability to soothe and heal, leaving space for the listener to work through their own moments of vulnerability and tenderness.
“With all the anxiety and uncertainty that we face culturally and in our individual lives, I wanted to make an album that was joyful but that acknowledged the struggle of being alive,” Asa wrote of the making of Kin. “The only way forward is through.”
Kin is out now via Atlantic Records. Get it here.
Electric Guest is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.