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What more can be written about seminal UK shoegaze giants Slowdive and the band’s resplendent and raved about return to the musical realm?
Plenty more, actually, but let’s, for once, skip the introductory formalities about Slowdive’s history and its importance as one of the originators of the shoegaze genre and jump right into a review of Slowdive, the act’s 4th studio album, released over two decades after previous LP Pygmalion, which itself was a departure from the band’s hallmark shoegaze-based sound.
Slowdive is the splendid result of the band members’ collective past experiences and finely honed expertise; “a trip down memory lane”, as Rachel Goswell puts it at Slowdive’s Bandcamp, certainly, but also a map of the journey that Goswell, Neil Halstead, Christian Savill, Nick Chaplin, and Simon Scott are taking in the spectacular now.
Slowdive is an album that becomes more than a sum of its individual parts. The full-length is a rich distillation and refreshing reimagining of the sonics and constructs that span the band’s prior albums, from the amorphous and shining shoegaze guitar and keyboards suspension of Just For A Day’s compositions and the lush dream-pop propulsion of some numbers off Souvlaki to the minimalistic, computer-generated looping ambience of Pygmalion, and even a touch of the melancholic folk introspection of Goswell and Halstead’s music project Mojave 3.
While the band members concentrate and extend some of the highlights of their past output, they’re also still willing to take stylistic risks here and there while getting to the essence of what makes their sound captivating – the majestic, incorporeal beauty of the heightened guitar radiance and diaphanously glowing keyboards shimmer that shines in the sky like the ethereal Northern Lights, Goswell’s pensively dulcet, aerial vocals that sometimes twin or twine around Halstead’s duskier, emotionally opaque vocal tone, and Halstead’s melodic, involving songwriting.
From what can be gleaned from the lyrics, Slowdive delves into themes like the dissolution of relationships, the distance between individuals, and the transience of time, reminiscing about the immutable past, ruing the path not taken, and crestfallen over lost love, yet sure about the unbreakable bond of love, no matter the changing circumstances.
There is a hypnotizing vibe that flows through Slowdive that’s composed of continuous cycles of spare lyrical content, overlapping to run-on vocal refrains, and looping instrumental motifs. For the most part it leaves the listener mesmerized, but at certain points it becomes too repetitive, especially when much of the lyrical material is buried in the sonic mix. Yet overall, Slowdive is an oeuvre of entrancing splendor that will stick with the listener.
Languorous opener “Slomo” is an unhurried introduction that drifts like a spacious and bright reverie. Goswell’s light, jewel-tone vocals and Halstead’s (Is it really him? It doesn’t sound like it!) mild and wavering voice quickly alternate and lap like waves against a beckoning shore, basking under a luminescent sun, and surfacing at times with message-in-a- bottle-like phrases, including “Give me your heart”, “shipwreck”, and “a curious thing.”
Stellar lead single “Star Roving” gets on with it in high shoegaze style, held aloft on starry climes of swooping, staticky, and smoldering guitars uplift, a propulsive drum tempo, and Halstead’s shadowy, magnetic vocal pull. The feeling the song delivers is that of riding the crest of a dynamic wave punctuated sporadically by brief lulls as the clarion guitars reel upwards and Goswell joins in with charming cooing accompaniment.
“Don’t Know Why” ramps up the pace even more with a rapid drum beat, fleet reverb guitar chime, and Goswell’s wistful, but nimble and rapid run-on vocals. The tempo soon smoothes out with vastly grand guitar lines, a calmer beat, and the appearance of an emotionally mellow Halstead. The tune divides its time between these serene sections and more agitated passages, finally settling on an expansive, gliding-through-the-air feeling.
Halstead is in the spotlight on “Sugar for the Pill”, which begins as a mid-tempo, languid number that runs on a lightly thumping beat, subdued bass line, soft keyboards press, and delicate guitar chime. A contemplative Halstead ruefully sighs, “…I had the strangest dream” while backing vocal lines, both male and female, float in and out of his wanderings. A fluid guitar skein winds around the warm harmonics and, for a short while, the song opens up with spangled guitar notes, cymbals tings, and a deeper drum beat.
Goswell takes her turn in the spotlight on “Everyone Knows”, a celestial standout that soars with Slowdive’s signature scintillating, limpid, sweeping, yet still suspended-from-the-heavens guitar chime and keyboards. Goswell’s longing, sky-high vocal effusion dissipates like a gauzy mist amid the ebb and flow of the lofty, euphoric sonic diffusion.
The start of the lyrics-packed “No Longer Making Time” brings it back down to earth with a flat-smacked drum beat, cycles of ringing guitar, low-end bass line, and downbeat vocals from Halstead and Goswell. A regretful Halstead murmurs, “…you wanted so much more.”, “…there’s no surprise.”, and “Holding on ‘til the feeling goes.” The mournfulness extends into the gentle, but richly ascending and descending guitar-driven rapture that sheerly shears the air as Halstead bittersweetly whispers, “Forever we’ll be / Together we’ll be.”
Slowdive gets more experimental on the ominous nocturnal displacement of “Go Get It.” A creeping atmosphere of slow drum hits, groaning bass line, and reverb guitar jingle are sporadically bolstered by sharp, far away horn pull. Halstead sing-talks in a dazed and deeper tone until the forceful chorus pushes in with Halstead and Goswell trading the shouted out lines, “I want to feel it / I want to see it.”
A discordant mélange of spiraling spinning discs, buzzing bass line, and cold, empty space eventually overtakes Halstead’s dreamstate meanderings. This is possibly Slowdive at its noisiest and it’s not a comforting feeling…
The album ends on a flat note with the drawn out (exactly 8 minutes long!), reflective, seemingly New Age-, and Mojave 3/folk-, influenced “Falling Ashes.” Water-drop piano notes plink a too-repetitive refrain while low-key synths, barely heard acoustic guitar, and electric guitar peal incrementally build in intensity.
A meditative letdown that lacks enough gravitas, Halstead and Goswell mirror each other as they sing-talk the phrase, “Thinkin’ about love” through a majority of the song. The story-telling verses hold more interest, but are few and far between. The emotional introspection is too one-note and instrumentally there are too many repeated notes, despite the seriousness of the lyrics.
While the last couple of numbers stray from the shoegaze/dream-pop/ambient path, the rest of the album is a class act of transfixing and transporting songcraft.
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