It’s been more than a decade now since former Six Finger Satellite guitarist John MacLean, at the urging of his friend James Murphy, began releasing singles on a small label Murphy had started called DFA Records. Even if you had somehow predicted DFA’s evolution into the cultural juggernaut it is today, it’s unlikely you would have pegged the man behind the electro-funk kitsch of “By the Time I Get to Venus” to have 12 years and counting of staying power. But here he is, joined by fellow DFA veterans Nancy Whang and Nick Milhiser under the Juan MacLean moniker, with In a Dream, the project’s first proper album in five years.
To say that dance music’s terrain has shifted since the release of 2009’s The Future Will Come would be an understatement. The future is here, and it’s full of genre-bending, boundary-pushing electronic acts that threaten to make The Juan MacLean’s disco revivalism sound safe and conventional by comparison. The motorik rhythm and pulsating eighth notes that kick off In a Dream opener “A Place Called Space” are nearly identical to those that opened Future, and for a moment it seems as if time has left The Juan MacLean behind. It’s only when the track’s big, muddy cruise-missile of a guitar riff hits that it becomes clear that In a Dream is moving forward by doubling down on the past.
There are a few contemporary echoes to be heard here, to be sure. The soul-specked deep house of “Here I Am,” in particular, plays like a drowsier version of a Disclosure cut, while “Love Stops Here” slowly eases itself (and listeners) into a chillwave-induced coma. Both come out the worse for it, poor matches as they are for Whang’s and MacLean’s respective vocal styles, but they’re the only true misfires on an album that, like its predecessor, gets its stumbles out of the way early and picks up steam as it moves along. A strong second half peaks with “Charlotte,” a frantic medley of soap-opera organ stabs, barely-there breakbeats and a wiry guitar solo that might as well have been transplanted from an Allman Brothers record.
MacLean and his collaborators have mastered some but not all of the familiar DFA bag of tricks. “Place” successfully pulls off Murphy’s signature move, a tightly focused groove that expands and expands into an operatic, arena-conquering jam; “Running Back to You” manages just the opposite, sinking inwards into a pleasantly slumberous nu-disco daze. Milhiser’s production is predictably immaculate, and crisp digital precision lends cornball Italo pastiche like “I’ve Waited for So Long” more heft than it probably deserves. But while Whang turns in the same hip, dispassionate vocal performances we’re used to, MacLean’s own singing remains the project’s central shortcoming. Try as he might, he can’t quite affect the above-it-all croon that’s been many a DFA act’s bread and butter, and even the glam-rock growl he tries out on “Charlotte” isn’t much more than adequate.
In a Dream builds momentum so effectively that it’s surprisingly easy to expect its ninth and final track to equal “Happy House,” the transcendent 12-minute disco-house anthem that closed The Future Will Come. But “The Sun Will Never Set on Our Love” proves a more modest affair: a warm cascade of synths that goes nowhere in particular, a few dulcet verses from Whang that don’t say much of anything, and a long, slow fade to black. It’s quite possibly the most sedate track MacLean has ever produced, a quiet end to an album content to stay well within its lane. But sometimes, in the midst of so much noise, quiet is just fine.