The delicate art of determining an album’s track sequence is usually only noticed when the job is utterly botched. A well-sequenced album flows seamlessly from beginning to end, its individual tracks transformed into a unified whole, while a poorly sequenced album sounds like a strung together collection of songs at best, or a disjointed mess at worst. Zonoscope, the third album by Australian synth-rockers Cut Copy, is a prime example of the latter. Its first half is excellent, equal to, if not better than, their uniformly great sophomore album In Ghost Colours. The album then teeters on a throwaway instrumental track (“Strange Nostalgia for the Future”), before declining into the ho-hum from there. What’s so frustrating about the album is that its second half isn’t bad, per se – it’s just not nearly as good as the first half. Being so front-loaded not only emphasizes the strength of Zonoscope’s first five tracks, but also underscores the relative limpness of its final five. It’s the classic example of the glass-half-full-or-half-empty test of optimism. Is Zonoscope half-excellent, or half-decent?
Being an optimist at heart, I’ll focus on the good. Zonoscope begins with the wonderful “Need You Now,” which builds, with increasing tension, to its cathartic climax atop the bubble and pop of its beat. As PMA’s own Daniel Koren has already put so well, the song’s “dreamy ambiance is exaggerated by a pulsating beat and a disco pop infrastructure that only this Melbourne ensemble can craft.” In that sense, “Need You Now” recalls In Ghost Colours highlights “Out There on the Ice” and “Unforgettable Season.” Things skew even more toward the dance floor on “Take Me Over.” The song is a perfect amalgamation of late-70s/ early-80s dance: a guitar lick worthy of the Bee Gees struts through buoyant synthesizer chords and handclaps, while Dan Whitford sings of being taken over and taken out. The call-and-response jangle of “Where I’m Going” and the explosive release of “Pharaohs & Pyramids” lead up to Zonoscope’s best track, “Blink and You’ll Miss a Revolution." For an album so chockablock with well-constructed melodies, none top its chorus. “Blink and You’ll Miss a Revolution" is Zonoscope’s best argument for being half-excellent.
The rest of the album not only falters in composition, but in delivery. Yet, there are skeletons of good songs here. I'm sure “Corner of the Sky” and “Alisa” will soar when played live, but on the album they sound stifled by the mix. Just as the colors on a painter’s palette can be haphazardly smeared into a uniform brown, the vibrancy of Zonoscope’s first half eventually dulls into a monochromatic sonic muddle. “Hanging Onto Every Heartbeat” is pleasant enough, but it lacks the urgency Cut Copy has so adroitly honed in the past. “Sun God,” the album’s 15-minute-long final track, epitomizes the problem with the album in general. It starts out strong before petering out into the boredom of the ordinary.
Listening to Zonoscope is akin to having sex without an orgasm. Given my many alternatives – knitting, balancing my checkbook, finally getting to that Dickens novel I’ve always meant to read – spending an hour with Cut Copy is still a good time. But once I reach Zonoscope’s meandering finale, I’m left feeling unsatisfied and a little bit angry. (Ladies, you know what I’m talking about.) What’s worse, there’s a simple solution to the problem. A mere reshuffling of its tracks, of the peaks and valleys of their quality, would have elevated Zonoscope from a half-excellent/ half-decent album to a near-great one. Instead, I’m left with a lingering question: Is the glass half full, or half empty?