Released: May 5th, 2017
Highlights: Star Roving, Sugar for the Pill, No Longer Making Time
Following 1995’s “Pygmalion”, their third full-length release, the renowned shoegazers of Slowdive officially disbanded after being dropped by their label, perhaps a sign that the movement they had helped popularize had, propelled from a cliff by the explosion of the Britpop phenomenon, run its course. In practical terms, though, the group never really went away, for three of its five members – including main songwriters Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell – continued to make music under the moniker of Mojave 3 through slightly more than a decade.
Such a shift in formation could easily have been seen as a minor lineup tweak for many bands, which would certainly soldier on whilst bearing the same flag; however, to Halstead and Goswell it worked as an opportunity to retire an old brand full of expectations on its shoulders and replace it with a disguise that would allow them to, with a foot still firmly planted on the dream pop terrains they so skillfully navigated, incorporate new sounds into their formula free from any sort of pressure. Life, though, has cyclical ways, and as interest in the shoegazing genre was reawakened by the return of My Bloody Valentine to touring in 2007 and their successful release of “MBV” in 2013, the name Slowdive was also to come out of its slumber shortly afterwards, a move that likewise ended up generating a series of shows and an original self-titled record.
The twenty two years that separate “Pygmalion” from “Slowdive” are a lot of time; a timespan that is certainly long enough for one to go into the album without any confidence that the version of the band contained in it will resemble in any way the group that broke apart in 1995. And indeed that is the case, for where “Pygmalion” was so sparse and dreamy that it was more ambient music than rock, “Slowdive” has bones, muscles, and structure. However, since “Pygmalion” was itself a large departure for the band at that point, that discrepancy does not mean “Slowdive” is an oddity or a product that does not relate to what came before it.
The truth, in fact, is quite the contrary: the biggest surprise of the record lies in how much it sounds like Slowdive; not the experimental outfit that birthed their third album, but the shoegazing giants that constructed a chain of wondrous EPs and two of the genre’s greatest albums: “Just for a Day” and, especially, “Souvlaki”. As a consequence, “Slowdive” feels more like a rebirth than a continuation; more like a look towards a glorious past than an evolution; and although that nature can cause it to be a victim of negative remarks regarding artistic stagnation, the twenty-four-year gap between it and “Souvlaki” makes it feel as when the return of a friend that had been absent for a while is followed by the very pleasant realization that they have kept all of their best traits.
“Slowdive” is, as such, appropriately titled because it is very true to the staples that fans associate with the band’s name. The soundscapes in which its eight tracks exist are so immense they transcend the barriers of headphones and stereo systems to engulf listeners into the lethargic ambiance that must live in the depths of the ocean or in the far reaches of space. Peacefully floating amidst those angelic environments, one is greeted by a myriad of sounds: the guitars of Halstead and Savill gently arrive in the form of rings or pulses from distant stars, always merging noise with beauty; the rhythm session of Chaplin and Scott lands with enough force to propel tunes forward but not with enough strength to dispel the mystical aura that surrounds the music; and keyboards and electronic elements appear as both gentle ornaments and velvety layers that fill up the empty spaces.
On top of that majestic haze, the voices of Halstead and Goswell show up like whispers, the messages they carry barely discernible, but the melodies that give them shape usually remarkable. At times the singers clash into some sort of beautiful cacophony of sounds that emanate from distinct sources, and at times they harmonize tightly; they are, however, invariably effective in how they transmit a tranquil tone that caresses listeners as they drift.
Along that sensory journey, the sonically uniform tracks that constitute it carry enough distinctions to keep the record interesting all the way through. “Slomo” is a grand opener that softly grows as it goes along, incorporating new pieces into itself until it fills the entirety of the soundscape; “Star Roving” is a rarity for Slowdive, a tune that rather than coming in like a soft mist moves like a fierce rocket; “Don’t Know Why” is an elusive mass of murmurs and instrumental shifts; “Sugar for the Pill” shows the band has their ears open to the success of introspective indie acts such as The xx; “Everyone Knows” tests the limits of noise and melody; “No Longer Making Time” plays with quiet-and-loud dynamics by bursting into the album’s most cathartic chorus; “Go Get It” ranks as the most experimental cut in the record, being hurt by an exaggerated reliance on a refrain that, albeit catchy, flirts too closely with clichéd terrain; and closer “Falling Ashes” is centered around a simple piano loop and an endlessly repeated melodic line that never get tiring thanks to their inherent beauty and the power of Halstead and Goswell’s whispered harmonies.
Along that path, old fans will be accompanied by the happinesses of knowing that following the detour of Mojave 3 and the loss of identity seen in “Pygmalion”, Slowdive has not just returned, but also reunited with its finest version; meanwhile, those that bump into the band for the first time with the release will be welcomed by the Slowdive sound in its best state, one that may not recreate the revelatory experience of “Souvlaki”, but that is nevertheless enough to submerge listeners in a serene pool of tranquility where atoms of beauty wash over their bodies.