“I won’t be leading with singles,” Daniel Johns said when announcing FutureNever, his second solo release. “The album is designed to be enjoyed as an album.”
It’s a romantic notion, in a world where playlists are populated by robots, but the album’s cyberpunk artwork and dystopian title dovetail well with Johns’ conceptual thesis: “‘FutureNever’ is a where your past, present and future collide – in the ‘FutureNever’ the quantum of your past experiences becomes your superpower.
Despite the sci-fi packaging, FutureNever was clearly not intended as a unified body of work. Johns calls it “an eclectic mix of music I’ve done over the past two years” and that random nature looms large, despite attempts to tie a neat bow around it all. Over the first 10 minutes, FutureNever erupts with Diorama-level theatrics, turns into a perfectly paced R&B gem, then goes down hard with a cocaine-heavy Peking Duk collab.
FutureNever looks like a number of separate projects played in shuffle mode. There are four songs that look like offcuts from an aborted operetta, a few dance collaborations that belong in Ministry of Sound mixes, and a handful of tracks that split the difference between the slinky electro of his debut solo album, Talk, and his brilliant and Loopy Dissociatives works with Paul Mac. There’s also a lot more guitar shredding than expected, despite not really being a guitar record.
It’s shocking that Johns released this in the traditional album format, given the sonic dissonance. As a statement of intent, it is impenetrable. As a concept album, it feels oddly reverse-engineered.
Which just means that FutureNever makes an uneven album. As a collection of music, it is unassailable, ambitious and often brilliant, with the album’s highlights standing among its best work.
FutureNever begins and ends with the same piano track, a cohesive boost bolstered by Johns’ decision to end the record with the two most explosive songs of his career, both of which would have been right at home. on the puppet musical Dracula.
Johns’ greatest orchestral ambitions are pushed to 11 on the overture Reclaim Your Heart; her full-throated voice is so rich and thoroughly over-the-top, pushed so high in the mix, that it sometimes feels uncomfortably intimate, sliding towards histrionics while still feeling sincere. It’s a high-flying act and it only slips occasionally.
Likewise, closing track These Thieving Birds Pt. 3 rounds out the Young Modern trilogy of whimsical, twirling melodies, but with much more weight. When We Take Over, another sweet track, feels like an open audition for a Broadway musical.
Johns delayed the album’s release by three weeks in order to include a collaboration with Van Dyke Parks which required more work; a wise move, as Emergency Calls Only is the highlight of the record, both musically and emotionally. It’s a superb pocket symphony, in the vein of Silverchair songs Tuna in the Brine and Across the Night.
The genre-hopping drills throughout FutureNever are mostly successful. I Feel Electric sounds like Michael Jackson from the Off the Wall era. Somebody Call An Ambulance benefits from its late sequencing, bursting like a ray of sunshine and finding the ghost of Luke Steele still lurking in Johns’ songwriting years after their fruitful collaborations. D4NGRSBOY has hooks for days.
FreakNever is the track that will generate the most discussion and disagreement among fans. A moving revamp of Silverchair’s 1997 single Freak, Johns writes third-person lyrics to his hit single, reflecting on the heartbreaking trauma of his teenage fame. The relatively unknown Purplegirl sings her biography to devastating effect: “No more maybes, the world stole a baby, took her soul on tour, and made a deal with the devil.” It’s heartbreaking and chilling, The Exorcist as told by TikTok.
As a full album, FutureNever is a difficult and choppy listen. But as a collection of individual songs, it’s an excellent body of work.