May 24, 2018

7 min read

On Jon Hopkins and the Enduring Legacy of Immunity

A relative unknown at the time, Jon Hopkins emerged as an artist in his own right on his fourth full-length release with an album that broke down the wall dividing electronic/techno music from a mainstream audience. It feels difficult to comprehend the impression that Immunity left upon me when I first heard it back in the summer of 2013. That impact exists now as a collection of thoughts and emotions, linked to experiences from a personally tumultuous year. It became my long player of the year; not only my favourite release but the one that got the most consistent play as the months went on and winter approached. Despite dozens of other albums competing for my attention, Immunity continued to linger in the mind.

I know I’m not alone in regard to that impact. Immunity is an album whose reputation precedes it, now even more so than it did during that long summer. At the time, you might’ve checked it out because a friend was singing its praises, or you’d glance over someone’s shoulder on the tube in morning rush hour to see them listening to it (my wandering eye spotted this on several occasions). Or better yet, how its slow-burner status was confirmed once it bagged a Mercury Music Prize nomination and the predictable spike in sales solidified a burgeoning love for an album that already had the formations of a stone cold contemporary classic.

Immunity bulldozed virtually every other album released in 2013 in its ability to straddle that revered space where artistic vision and commercial success amalgamate without even so much as a whiff of compromise. That it resonated as much as it did was mostly a surprise, not least of all to Hopkins; Immunity appeared seemingly out of nowhere and only built on its success as time went on. I can think of perhaps no other electronic release this decade that has achieved the same success without intentionally playing to the kind of audience the label might market it to. (Grimes’ Visions has arguably a more enduring legacy than Immunity, but not even the most hardcore Claire Boucher fan can say the superb Art Angels wasn’t conceived as more accessible in response to Visions’ breakthrough success.) Compare some of the other releases of 2013 with Immunity and it’s easy to see how it stands alone as a sort of outlier, hallmarked within strict perimeters of Hopkins’ fascination with sound design, a technique he employs throughout every track that can only be described as a ‘sensory overload.’

Immunity, 2013

There are most likely two caveats when it comes to finding a worthy 2013 release to compare to Immunity’s impressive reputation. In my experience (cross-referencing to jog my memory of a specific time, place and even an album’s cultural clout in 2013), all came up short. Firstly, there are those that no doubt matched the artistry of Hopkins’ larger than life ambitions, yet quite understandably were too obtuse to make ripples beyond the pool of those within esoteric earshot (Amygdala, R Plus Seven, Tomorrow’s Harvest).

Secondly, there are those albums that felt borne of the weight of commercial expectation and succeeded, managing to deliver healthy sales, news features and, by 2018, reverence as cult albums amongst a select group of devout diehards (The Bones Of What You Believe, Random Access Memories and, most notably, Settle.) All of these releases were big news in some way in 2013, the final three managing to achieve particular acclaim for crossing over genres and blurring the distinction between indie, rock, dance and synth-pop.

What can we learn from Immunity by comparing it with these other albums and Hopkins’ ability to communicate beyond the usual artist/audience relationship? Was it all pure luck? Usually a couple of the hits from Settle or Random Access Memories will find their way onto most people’s Spotify playlists; a Latch here or a Get Lucky there. It might be less common for those listeners to know the albums back to front, and almost certainly not in the case of R Plus Seven. Even Immunity falls into that trap, yet there are a number of clues as to its enduring appeal and why such a relatively large audience connected with an hour-long electronic album almost devoid of vocals.

Hopkins is a classically-trained pianist and his piano playing comes to the fore on numerous tracks on Immunity, the most arresting of which is Abandon Window. Technically the album’s showstopper, it takes a heartbreaking piano motif to its core and fuses it with the sound of distant erupting fireworks in its second half. It’s difficult to know what kind of emotional reaction we’re meant to take from Abandon Window, but maybe that’s the whole point? We can take what we want from an album that is more concerned with pushing the boundaries on sound content, leaving us to focus purely on our emotional response.

The lack of vocals on Immunity feel in part responsible for creating this strong reaction in a large number of listeners. Devoid of that most instantaneous and human of responses to popular music, the listener is forced to have an internal reaction over an external one. We cannot sing along to Immunity; we may nod and hum or tap our feet, but its cerebral and hypnotic rhythms reflect a desire to solve one of its most common themes; the harmony that arises from the discord of its rhythmic melodies and archaic stop-start programming. Within it evolves a kind of beauty out of madness. It’s like solving a mathematical problem in our heads and slowly making sense of its garbled information overload, problems that become more familiar as we learn how to trapeze through Hopkins’ den of mystery and intrigue.

Hopkins is fascinated with the pure essence of sound and how it can be manipulated. Immunity was recorded over a nine month period in his east London studio and the confident, jagged instrumentation of most of the album’s ‘upbeat’ tracks reflect not only a remarkable tactility but pure joy in the power of creation. Second track Open Eye Signal is arguably Hopkins’ most popular and enduring song. It captures perfectly the album’s technique of sustained delay and release, accruing tension ever so slowly with each passing wave of noise until it become so strong that everything building up behind it cascades forward, tumbling down in a glorious, shimmering mess of glitchy, fragmented distortion. Its melodies are distinct and minuscule, yet our brains are wired to group them together into larger blocks that click together like a Jenga tower. Working better as a motif, they function like small shards of glass reflecting light at an infinite number of angles, repeating and recurring with emphasis placed at key points to drive forth a particular mood or feeling. Hopkins manages to sew them together so intricately and so beautifully that they work just as well as modern pop music. It’s impossible to listen to Open Eye Signal (or its sister track Collider) without thinking about Hopkins’ intentions in the same way one might feel Kubrick or Scorsese lurking in their mind whilst watching Barry Lyndon or Taxi Driver; the director’s vision is so apparent that it affects every frame, even more so at intervals where a pinnacle thought or idea begins to crest.

Singularity, 2018

Immunity’s position as a landmark album this decade is thrown into even starker contrast when we consider its successor, Singularity. Released a few weeks ago, the weight of expectation surrounding Singularity was intense, so much so that it landed within the top ten of the official UK album charts (Immunity peaked at 63). Reaction has been strong with critical accolades aplenty (no doubt a Mercury Prize nomination will follow), yet Singularity feels like more of a shuffle than a stride forward. It’s a product of the reactionary effect of Immunity’s surprise word-of-mouth success. To be fair to Hopkins, Singularity contains many moments of awe, it’s just that they feel indebted to Immunity’s jackpot-hitting formula. As with Grimes, how could it not be? Immunity felt like it had the power to change your life, but no one’s life was changed more so by its success than Hopkins’. Even the titles have an uncanny similar…ity, along with the artwork, and the fact that the first half contains the heavier techno numbers before giving way to more ambient soundscapes.

Over time we must come to view both albums as separate works and allow Singularity the distinction of its own merit. Would we be satisfied with anything less than what Hopkins has bestowed upon us? Would we be happier if Hopkins had taken an entirely left turn? Most of us have been waiting patiently for a follow-up to Immunity that captures that same lightning in a bottle, so it feels particularly unfair to criticise him for continuing its sound. His style is one that is hard to pick faults with and Hopkins has stated that Singularity actually contains many studio advancements. Whether you can spot them or even care doesn’t matter. We know that lightning never strikes twice in the same spot and if Singularity feels mildly underwhelming, it stems from the relationship I’ve built with Immunity over the years.

Had Immunity never existed, Singularity could be taken of its own accord and we would be freer to make up our own minds about all the same things we did five years ago, but since it is indebted to its predecessor in style and content, we can never know what that might feel like. It will be interesting to see how time continues to shape Immunity and its reputation as a landmark electronic release. Singularity has thrown that into sharp relief this year. If we can deduce anything at this early stage, it’s that the sound Hopkins has carved out across these two albums hints at a bigger picture, something that could be blown wide apart on his next release, and that is definitely an exciting idea to mull over whilst we wait for the next chapter of his journey.