Tuesday, July 4, 2017

album review: 'slowdive' by slowdive

Do you ever have the feeling like you may have gotten into certain genres the 'wrong way'? 

I know, there's never any one right way to experience art - most people rarely hit the clean entry point into more obscure or indie genres and it's always a bit of search, but there is a part of me that feels I've only ever approached shoegaze completely wrong. Part of this is because I feel I jumped past the genre into atmospheric black metal and blackgaze, which means going back to these spacier, lighter tones just leaves me feeling underwhelmed. I get the appeal, believe me, but I'm going to listen to this sort of atmospheric, dream-like music, I tend to prefer a bit more muscle and backbone behind it, and from the shoegaze I've heard, I haven't exactly found it captivating. Even approaching it from ambient music... it made a little more sense, but my experience with ambient music has been more on the experimental side, and thus a lot of more conventional-sounding shoegaze just didn't grab my ear. Coupled with much of it feeling underwritten, for the most part I was comfortable saying it just wasn't for me.

But at the same time I didn't want to write off the entire genre without giving it a fair chance, so when the long-awaited comeback record from shoegaze/dream-pop group Slowdive showed up on my schedule, I did want to make an effort to explore it... albeit a few months later when the pressure had died down. So I took my time, went through the back catalog... and look, I don't know what to tell you, it's pleasant music but it just didn't really stick with me. Some of the melodies on Souvlaki were good, and I found some of the ambient electronics on Pygmalion intriguing, but beyond that... not much that really grabbed me. But hey, it's been over twenty years since that record, maybe in the mean time all of the band's experiences would add up to this comeback project being solid?

Honestly, I'm not sure what to tell you: if you expected Slowdive to innovate in a dramatic way with this self-titled record, or push their sound in a way that'd reflect the years between projects, or do something that would invigorate or challenge an audience in the same way Pygmalion did... yeah, I'm not really hearing that. And that's because this self-titled record might have some of the elements in the composition that call more back to shoegaze or dream pop, but much more of this record reminds me of some particularly clean post-rock. Now I'm not saying that's precisely bad - there's a lot of post-rock I like, and the compositions and writing behind this record help ease over the shift in sound, but I can't help but feel pretty distant towards this record overall, only further emphasized by the delivery, writing, and production, and I'm not sure it's the best fit for the compositions or underlying themes behind this record... for the extent that we get them, at least. It's not a bad release - I can see why some people have really gotten behind it - but it's not exactly one that's sucking me in or surprising me, and in terms of comeback records I'm mostly lukewarm on it at best.

So let's start with that shift in sound, and the most appropriate place comes in the production and composition. For one, unlike previous Slowdive records this album was entirely produced by the frontman Neil Halstead himself, with no involvement from engineer Chris Hufford. And while having listened to Mojave 3 you might have seen some of this coming, it still was a little jarring coming from previous records to this - the guitars are cleaner and sharper, the looped melodic progressions sitting in a liquid swell of reverb and synth as the drums sit midway back to tap out a steady, distant rhythm. There are hints of distortion that sit around some of the guitars and bass on songs like 'Stars Roving', 'No Longer Making Time', and 'Go Get It' - with the former along with 'Everyone Knows' and 'Don't Know Why' easily being the most propulsive songs Slowdive has ever written, and if you can get yourself in the right headspace for it it's got some solid swell - but the overall tone of this production is harder to quantify. The guitar lines sink into a mix that can lead some density, but the elements feel increasingly disconnected, the chill low gurgle of the synth not quite matching the sparse groove and percussion, all feeling so hollow and distant and nowhere close to organic. And again, that's not saying that there aren't potent melodies here - the liquid echo of the guitar against the more prominent bass groove sounds great on 'Sugar For The Pill', even if the oddly rounded tones post-chorus feel a bit off, and it's a similar sort of vibe that I liked about 'No Longer Making Time' - but even then, even at these songs' most hypnotic moments, I still feel more from the emotions at their core, there just isn't that sense of closeness or intimacy. Hell, the closing track 'Falling Ashes' is a carefully overdubbed piano ballad that I feel is supposed to feel contemplative and wistful, and yet it's just not resonating with me.

And the vocal delivery certainly isn't helping, and here's the thing: if Slowdive were going to keep with more intimate production, this method of vocal delivery would have been fine. Soft, inviting, gentle, seeking to coax the audience into the mood and the intimate emotions running through the stories. The problem is that when you have production that is more propulsive, carrying more of an edge in the synth and more energy in the guitar grooves, you expect the vocals to pick up a little more presence or immediacy... and that doesn't happen. Don't get me wrong, I like Neil Halstead's lower tones and Rachel Goswell's ethereal cooing, but if you're going to kick up the grooves and production that feels so much bigger, you'd like to think there'd be a little more passion, or at the very least layering that didn't feel like the words were getting lost in the swell or overdubs, which only emphasizes that detachment.

But okay, maybe that was the point, if you go to the lyrics? Well, that's a tricky argument. You could say there's something that feels clinical about the language on songs like 'Slomo', describing that 'curious love', or how so much of this record uses the past tense or seems to be reflecting on past relationships that hit for a moment before sparking out, moments of half-remembered passion on blissed-out summer nights that causes you to step back and have songs 'thinking' about love. Hell, I even like how unlike so many groups with multiple lead singers, Slowdive actually gets some mileage in their writing pairing Halstead and Goswell against each other, like on the frustrated post-breakup emotions of 'Don't Know Why'. But then you have tracks like 'Star Roving' and 'No Longer Making Time' and 'Go Get It' that are aiming for a sort of wistfulness that runs more deeply and seems to demand greater passion and emotional involvement in the writing, and I'm just not getting the urgency in the delivery to really suck me in. It doesn't help that the album just feels underwritten: broad platitudes for which you really need a sense of swell and presence or deeper intimacy to pull you closer - as it is here, they feel like fragments hanging in the air, disconnected ideas that don't really rise above it all.

Look, I get that this is coming off as more negative, and as I said, maybe this type of shoegaze and dream pop just isn't for me. But at the same time, I also feel like Slowdive hits a weird half measure that doesn't compliment their strengths, trying to approach a specific vibe and atmosphere I found that, say, The xx hit far more effectively this year on I See You that I found way more captivating. This... look, if you're a Slowdive fan, I can see a lot of you really loving this, but again, I'm only kind of lukewarm and distant from it, which means I'm giving it a strong 6/10 and really a recommendation for fans only. Everyone else... check out their first three records, and if you're curious... meh, might be worth a listen.

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