The shoegaze legends return with their first album in 22 years, a precise and altogether gorgeous showcase of their peerless ability at production, mood, and songcraft.
Nature metaphors come so readily to mind when listening to shoegaze—clouds, stars, skies, storms, oceans, whirlwinds, maelstroms—that it’s easy to believe that, like the weather it evokes, it just sort of happens. Invest in the right guitar pedals, put the right breathy spin on your vocals, and bam—instant Loveless, or close enough to fool a stoned and heartsick teenager. It’s as easy as walking out your front door and letting the spring air greet you.
For some bands that may well be all there is to it. But song by song, moment by moment, sometimes even note by note, Slowdive do it better. There’s nothing elaborate in the bassline for “Slomo,” the opening track of their first album in 22 years, given the thick bed of guitars it bounces on. Just seven notes, the sixth of which leaps unexpectedly up an octave instead of continuing the bassline’s descent. Or at the end of “Slomo,” when Rachel Goswell’s voice pulls off a similar trick, first when she takes over lead vocals from Neil Halstead, then when she starts singing them at the very top of her register. At the end of “Go Get It,” Halstead sings two different lyrics laid on top of one another simultaneously, like his conversation with Goswell is over and now he’s talking to himself.
In a genre beloved for its comfortable reliability, all it takes are these small but striking detours to remind us that this glorious noise is the work of human hands and the skill that move them. If there’s a story to Slowdive—the band’s return to active recording together after decades of slowly mounting critical and audience acclaim—beyond the human-interest angle of the return itself, the swerves in the songcraft tell it: This is an album as thoughtful as it is beautiful.
You can hear the attention to detail even in the album’s most conventionally pop songs. Knockout single “Sugar for the Pill” and “No Longer Making Time” share a similar structure, matching a loping alt-rock bassline with high arpeggiated guitar. But the differences that emerge within that framework are fascinating. “Sugar” avoids the go-for-the-throat, quiet-loud-quiet format which “No Longer” embraces, opting instead for a subdued sophistipop chorus that matches the resignation of its central lyric: “You know it’s just the way things are.” The latter song may lack the former’s restraint, but it makes up for it with the tightest, loveliest vocal harmonies on the album from singer-guitarists Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell, plus a fake-out finale that reintroduces the opening riff so deftly you’ll wonder if you hit repeat by accident.
Drummer Simon Scott, returning to the fold for the first time on record since 1993’s shoegaze opus Souvlaki, emerges as a key element not just for the songs’ drive, but of their texture. On “Slomo,” “No Longer Making Time,” and “Go Get It,” he provides not so much a backbeat as a frontbeat, a sound to be reckoned with, not taken for granted. Scott also helped create the vocal and piano loops that comprise “Falling Ashes,” the album’s closer; the repetition transforms Halstead and Goswell’s refrain of “Thinkin’ about love” from soggy sentiment into something that actually forces you to think about love as you listen. Even when Scott plays a more traditional role, as with the martial tempo he provides for the opening minute of “Don’t Know Why,” he’s apt to shift the rhythm beneath the Halstead/Goswell/Christian Savill guitars in unpredictable ways.
Slowdive offers maximum-volume shoegaze too, better than the band ever has before. Lead single “Star Roving” lives up to its interstellar title with easily the largest, most high-velocity guitar attack in the group’s discography. “Go Get It” is even better: a wet hot summer groove with a savagely flashy riff to match Halstead and Goswell’s back-and-forth chorus of “I wanna see it/I wanna feel it.” The words evoke Iggy and the Stooges’ “Gimme Danger” in how they can be interpreted as a quest for spiritual, psychological, or sexual transcendence, depending on your mood. An album this consistently shifty and surprising will likely hit three buttons at some point or other.
About a quarter-century removed from the “The Scene That Celebrates Itself” and the music press that made it infamous, Slowdive reveals what a Slowdive free of that pressure can do. The result isn’t the youthful explosion of their first full-length Just for a Day, nor the polished shot at success of Souvlaki, nor the thrillingly reactionary minimalism of Pygmalion. It’s the work of a band that reformed and recorded by choice, at their own pace, bringing the accrued experience of their entire adult lives to bear on music made outside the crucible for the very first time; no wonder the album, like their debut EP, is self-titled. So forget the weather imagery. Slowdive doesn’t make it look easy. It makes it look hard. Creating music this great almost always is.
Source: Sean T. Collins for pitchfork.com