“I won’t be leading in with singles,” Daniel Johns declared 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 meshes nicely with Johns’ conceptual thesis: “‘FutureNever’ is a place where your past, present and future collide – in the ‘FutureNever’ the quantum of your past experiences become your superpower.”
Despite the sci-fi wrapping, FutureNever clearly wasn’t conceived as a united body of work. Johns calls it “an eclectic mix of music that I’ve made over the last couple of years” and this haphazard nature looms large, despite attempts to tie a neat bow around it all. Within the first 10 minutes, FutureNever erupts with Diorama-level theatrics, busts into a perfectly paced day-glo RnB gem, then comes down hard with a Peking Duk collaboration about cocaine.
FutureNever feels like a number of separate projects played on shuffle. There are four songs that seem like offcuts from an aborted operetta, a few dance collaborations that belong on 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 bright and loopy Dissociatives work with Paul Mac. There’s also a lot more guitar shredding than expected, despite this being very much not a guitar record.
It’s shocking Johns released this in the traditional album format at all, considering the sonic dissonance. As a statement of intent, it is inscrutable. As a concept album, it seems suspiciously reverse-engineered.
Which is only to say that FutureNever makes for an uneven album. As a collection of music, it is unassailable, ambitious, and often brilliant, with the album’s high points sitting among his very best work.
FutureNever begins and ends with the same piano run, a stab at cohesion furthered by Johns’ decision to bookend the record with the two most bombastic songs of his career, both of which would have been at home on the Dracula puppet musical.
Johns’ grander orchestral ambitions are pushed to 11 on opener Reclaim Your Heart; his full-throated vocal is so rich and completely over the top, pushed so high in the mix, that it feels uncomfortably intimate at times, sliding towards histrionics while somehow still feeling sincere. It’s a high-wire act and he only occasionally slips.
Likewise, closing track Those Thieving Birds Pt. 3 completes the Young Modern trilogy of whimsical, twerping tunes, but with far more weight. When We Take Over, another treacly tune, sounds like an open-call audition for a Broadway musical.
Johns delayed the album’s release by three weeks in order to include a collaboration with Van Dyke Parks that needed more work; a wise move, as Emergency Calls Only is the record’s high-water mark, both musically and emotionally. It is a stunning pocket symphony, in the vein of Silverchair songs Tuna in the Brine and Across the Night.
The exercises in genre-hopping throughout FutureNever are mostly successful. I Feel Electric sounds like pristine Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson. Somebody Call An Ambulance benefits from its late-run sequencing, bursting through like a sun ray 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 elicit the most discussion and disagreement among fans. An emotional recasting of Silverchair’s 1997 single Freak, Johns pens third-person lyrics to his hit single, looking back at the earth-shaking trauma of his teenage fame. Relative unknown Purplegirl sings his biography to devastating effect: “No more maybes, the world stole a baby, took his soul on tour, and made a deal with the devil.” It’s heartbreaking and creepy, The Exorcist as told by TikTok.
As a complete album, FutureNever is a difficult and choppy listen. But as a collection of individual songs, it is an excellent body of work.