Slowdive is one of a trio of influential and acclaimed British shoegaze bands from the genre’s heyday in the early 1990s to release a record 20+ years after their last one (the other two being My Bloody Valentine in 2013 and Ride this past week). The group’s beloved Souvlaki is one of shoegaze’s defining albums, and while the band has moved only in subtle new directions in the time since its release, their new self-titled LP is proof that the group’s signature ‘huge wall of textured guitars’ sound still comes across as fresh, inventive and beautiful in the 2017 musical landscape. On the some of the album’s softer and more derivative moments, however, the group’s direction can feel awkward, leading to a generally strong but at times inconsistent listen.
Shoegaze, by its nature, is a genre about adding as many effects and reverb pedals as you can to as many guitars as you can and creating an ocean of endlessly deep, distorted sound over which you sing soft, incomprehensible lyrics about loneliness, and Slowdive does not often attempt to diverge from this formula. Instead, the band stakes their edge and originality on great melodies and song structures that worm into your head, making sure that every track’s collage of synths and guitars sounds as epic and titanic as possible. Opener “Slomo” comes in close to seven minutes but doesn’t overextend, riding echoing shotgun snares behind looping synth and lead guitar patterns, never complex, one after another until finally vocalist Neil Halstead’s voice enters in a familiar wash of effects, singing a looping melody that almost sounds like another instrument piled on atop the giant sea of sound. When Rachel Goswell’s voice finally pierces the fray to loop the same melody an octave above Neil’s, the song (and maybe entire album) has reached the peak of what it intends to be – a magnificent, swirling whirlpool of sound, all the individual components adding up to something far greater than the sum of their parts.
“Star Roving” kicks things into an uptempo, even dancey groove that doesn’t sacrifice carefully laid layers of washed out guitars, but does move into a wonderful central quiet section, an eye of the hurricane, before the track rushes back in with even greater energy and conviction. These first two tracks are Slowdive at their best, and similarly enormous second half cuts “Everyone Knows” and “No Longer Making Time”, the former dancing amidst a falsetto Rachel vocal, the latter featuring the album’s best back and forth, loud and soft dynamics and vocal melody from Neil, who at times even leaves bare his now raspy, aged voice, injecting a certain human element into songs that typically convey emotion through their guitars.
But in the album’s center, “Sugar for the Pill” similarly exposes Neil’s vocals and cadences amid gently delaying guitar lines, but the melody and voice feel strangely out of place within song’s spectral ambiance, and I can’t help feeling like the song is a mid-album letdown, especially following the lilting and energetic “Don’t Know Why”. The penultimate “Go Get It” has an almost Pearl-Jam like grunginess to its chord progression and call and response chorus, but doesn’t really add anything new to the wall of sound formula that is exercised with far more emotion on “Slomo” and “Star Roving”. And the album’s final track, “Falling Ashes”, is unfortunately a failed experiment; a slow, mostly barren piano elegy that sees the vocalists repeating the phrase “Thinking about love, thinking about love” ad nauseum. I get it; he’s thinking about love. Thinking what? Where does this song go? What was the idea here? This isn’t Tim Hecker haunted piano beauty– it’s just an end of the album bummer.
At it’s best, Slowdive is as good as anyone could ever hope Slowdive to be after a twenty-year absence. But at its worst, while far from unsophisticated or uninteresting (aside from “Falling Ashes”, that is), the group feels strained, their ideas not the meddling of a new band defining their sound, but an old band trying to put eight tracks together that can at least stand up with their previous work. And five out of eight times, they succeed, which is a more than good enough batting average for a late-career album. There are times where Slowdive sounds like the best thing that’s come out this year, but as a whole it can be inconsistent and is never novel or revolutionary.
Score: 8 / 13