When the British shoegazing band Slowdive reunited in 2014, it felt like the final confirmation that the band had escaped the narrative that had followed them for their entire career.
Just teenagers when they formed in 1989, the band’s early work received a solid reception, but the British music press turned on shoegazing by 1992, and the group was seen as the genre’s easiest target. Their second album, Souvlaki, now considered to be one of the best albums of the ’90s, was savaged upon release; Dave Simpson of Melody Maker famously crowed that he “would rather drown choking in a bath full of porridge than ever listen to it again.” Third album Pygmalion – which saw the band experiment with atmospheric electronic soundscapes to compelling results – was more completely ignored than hated; By 1995, the British music world had decided that whatever was left of shoegazing wasn’t even worth attacking anymore, and had moved almost entirely onto Britpop. One week after Pygmalion‘s release, Slowdive were dropped by Creation Records (also the home of Oasis, no less) and subsequently broke up.
As years went by, Slowdive’s music was rediscovered by a more welcoming group of pop critics and indie music fans. By the time of their reunion, the band was widely considered to be only second to My Bloody Valentine as the most important act that the shoegazing genre had produced.
Now, 22 years after Pygmalion, Slowdive has released their self-titled fourth album. The album does not follow on from its predecessor’s atmospheric ambiance and instead provides a modern update to their sound circa Souvlaki. Yet, the album never once feels like a retread of their most famous work.
Unlike My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive’s signature shoegazing sound did not rely on unrelenting volume. Instead the band preferred a gauzy, dreamy sound that was once described as sounding like it was being played underwater.
Slowdive opener “Slomo” fits that description well, with frontman Neal Halstead’s vocals seeming as if they are half submerged under a sea of layered guitars. His voice – and later that of Rachel Goswell, who joins him midway and sings the final verse alone – never feels overwhelmed by the music, and it instead feels like its floating in the mix.
The lyrics are there and they are important, yet its not the words that carry “Slomo”, but the melody of Halstead and Goswell’s voices. The song is a wonderful re-introduction to the band’s sound and aesthetic, and to what made the first wave of shoegazing so invigorating
Even better is “Sugar for the Pill”, which has a slower tempo, clearer vocals and a tremendous melody. The song has a more standard verse-chorus-verse structure and feels like a tonal successor to “Alison”, the band’s best known song. The interplay between Halstead and Goswell’s vocals are key to the songs success; the singers play off of each other’s voices, with Goswell’s vocal acting as a bell effect to Halstead’s. The song’s guitar work is excellent too, with the band’s three guitarists creating a patchwork of hazy, swirling effects.
Another highlight is “No Longer Making Time” which is dominated by quiet-loud dynamics. The song’s soothing verses with picked guitar flourishes are coupled with a chorus where an overdriven wall of guitars is placed behind a lovely vocal melody. It’s a routine that Slowdive has always done well, and the band does something new with it each time they pull it off.
“Star Roving”, the first single, feels like a bit like an anomaly, on both the record and in the band’s discography. The song is on the rockier, more propulsive end of the shoegazing spectrum, instead of the dreamy tones that Slowdive traded in on even on their louder, heavier songs like “Souvlaki Space Station”. But it smartly never abandons the group’s trademarks. Even with the overdriven guitars, Halstead and Goswell’s vocals on “Star Roving” feel as weightless as they do on other songs, and that helps the song fit perfectly onto the album. The song is a delightful burst of energy on an otherwise midtempo record.
The eight-minute closer “Falling Ashes” is the biggest departure from formula on the entire album. Instead of being led by a thick layer of guitars, the song is musically sparse, with its backbone comprised a piano loop courtesy of drummer Simon Scott. Halstead and Goswell’s vocals don’t appear until well past the two minute mark. The lyrics on this songs are more audible than at any point on the record. The song is constructed around repetition, not just in the loop, but also in the final repeated phrase “thinkin’ about love” that takes up nearly a quarter of the run time. It’s an intriguing way to end the record and one that hints at the directions that the band could take in the future.
With just eight songs, Slowdive has proven that they have not lost their ability to make compelling, gorgeous music. Slowdive is an aural delight, and not a single one of its eight tracks feels weak or out of place.
The 22 year gap between albums has not affected Slowdive’s ability to record a fantastic, compelling record that once again shows them at the forefront of an entire subgenre of music. Slowdive is one of the best records of 2017 so far and a welcome return for one of the finest bands of the past 30 years.