Built on illusion and escape, festival-sized EDM isn’t known for its emotional candor. Nonetheless, Chapel Hill’s Porter Robinson, 22, nearly bares his soul on “Fellow Feeling,” the penultimate track of Worlds, not directly but through a computer-generated female voice. “Now, please, hear what I hear,” she says before an angry onslaught of dubstep jackhammering punctures the plush symphonic strings. The voice continues: “This ugliness, this cruelty, this repulsiveness; it will all die out. And now I cry for all that is beautiful.” As the track crescendos, a generic four-to-the-floor thump accompanies his melancholy melody, as if Robinson is trying to reconcile the mindless party grooves that made him famous with the mournful music that now soothes his soul.
Like his monumentally popular peer Avicii, Robinson is rebelling against his success on his very first full album. It clearly repudiates the banging electro house vibe that made him an instant teenage sensation both as a DJ and singles-generating producer while trying to reroute it into something more personally satisfying. He’s an exceptionally conflicted guy, and that shows straight away: The opening track “Divinity” features many EDM trademarks — a walloping beat, a wall of synths, a breathy female cameo supplied by Stars and Broken Social Scene’s Amy Millan, here electronically rendered unrecognizable — all reduced to a nearly funereal plod. Having seemingly burnt out on EDM’s molly-fueled pace, Robinson sticks to ballad-speed BPMs throughout most of Worlds: There isn’t a genuine uptempo cut until “Lionhearted,” an uncharacteristically eager-to-please cut made a little more rock ‘n’ roll by a ragged vocal from Swedish indie-pop band Urban Cone.
Like most self-taught electronic musicians, Robinson’s production skills outweigh his compositional ability: Worlds is claustrophobic with intricately rendered sonic textures set to generally mundane tunes. Some of this may be intentional: Robinson pays tribute to the sounds of his childhood — bygone video arcades, the 16-bit synth bleeps that accompanied online gaming communities, anime’s self-consciously heroic soundtracks, and, of course, early Daft Punk. And although he excels at evoking kitsch, aside from “Lionhearted,” which he co-wrote with Urban Cone, and his self-descriptive “Sad Machine,” there’s little here that’s memorable without nagging. Worlds mimics the similarly nostalgic ache of M83 but without that act’s nuance or individuality: He’s trying to shift from extroversion to introspection by simply slowing and softening his clichés. At this early point, Robinson’s interior universe seems strikingly secondhand.