Much like you would with the original nine members of the Wu-Tang Clan, there are tiers when it comes to ranking the shoegaze bands from the genre’s heyday in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s.
When you think “shoegaze,” I think it’s a safe bet that you probably think of My Bloody Valentine—specifically, the opening snare hits and snarling feedback of “Only Shallow,” and the lasting impact and importance of Loveless.
Maybe you think of The Jesus and Mary Chain—specifically the swooning and dissonant waves of “Just Like Honey.” But, is The JAMC even “shoegaze?” Do latecomers, such as myself, lump them in with this simply because of that song’s inclusion at the end of Lost in Translation? Are they more post-punk? Is this even a discussion worth having? (No.)
After you get through what, I guess, you would call those “top tier” acts, you start to work your way down the ranks.
Before you get to more esoteric bands like The Boo Radleys, you’ll arrive at acts like Ride, and Slowdive—both of which have iconic shoegaze singles (Ride’s “Vapour Trail” is nothing short of an incredible human accomplishment) and yes, while both bands are looked back on fondly by fans of the genre, I am uncertain if they have that transcendental and timelessness to their sound, along with a larger than life mythology that they are associated with.
Slowdive imploded in 1995, following both the departure of founding members, as well as the release of a dramatic shift in style on what proved to be their final album, Pygmalion. The members all went on to other projects, but because nostalgia, the group reunited for a tour in 2014, and last year, began working on new material.
Simply and aptly titled Slowdive, this new effort finds the reunited five-piece not so much picking up where they left off, but attempting to navigate a two-decade absence by both tapping into the aching for a time long gone, all while steeping itself in very contemporary aesthetics.
Part of the “thing” with shoegaze is all in how the music is mixed.
The guitars are loud, distorted, and reverberate for days, and the vocals are muddied, buried somewhere deep down in the layers upon layers of noise. But is that how shoegaze operates in 2017? It’s a question that is asked on Slowdive; opening with the curiously titled “Slomo,” you think the band is sliding right back into its Souvlaki-era sound—the guitars are dreamy, bouncing off of one another, as the percussion slightly echoes and the vocals all arrive sounding incredibly ethereal, especial Rachel Goswell’s contribution in the song’s final verse.
It’s one of the album’s finest moments—capturing nearly everything that people just love about the genre, packing it into a gauzy seven-minute sprawl. I stop short of saying it is a bait and switch, but there is certainly nothing quite like it to be found on the rest of this record.
Sure, there are moments that shimmer, like “Everyone Knows,” a hook-driven, straight forward jam powered by rollicking, bouncing guitar, and Goswell’s voice mixing in nicely with co-front person Neil Halstead.
But the problem I found with Slowdive is that, for how sparse it comes off (only eight songs) it suffers greatly from pacing and structure issues.
“Exciting” is not a word that one would associate with shoegaze, but as the first half of this album unfolds, the band tries to build momentum and energy with the huge and strummy single “Star Rover,” and the soaring, wistful, yet uneven rhythm of “Don’t Know Why,” but then it comes to a screeching halt by the time it arrives at the plodding “Sugar For the Pill” arrives.
In the album’s second half, Slowdive aim for the rafters with the soaring “No Longer Making Time,” a song that really only works during what could be referred to as its refrain; and as things begin to careen toward the end of the album, they pile on the dramatic tension and noisy shoegaze theatrics on “Go Get It.”
Slowdive concludes with the lengthy, maudlin piano-led “Falling Ashes”—the kind of song (based on its running time, anyway) that you think during your initial listen that it is going somewhere, or at least heading toward something larger than itself. But that’s not the case here—it never takes off, and simply just ends, bringing the record to a close on kind of underwhelming.
At the start of 2013 when My Bloody Valentine finally released their third album, MBV, a question I asked myself at the time was how kind would time be to it? It wasn’t a record bad enough to damage the band’s legacy (it too is uneven at times, but overall it was enjoyable) but part of its charm was that it actually happened; after 20+ years, Kevin Shields got his shit together and finally called the album “done.” The music certainly wasn’t strong enough to compete with Loveless, but could it overcome its own compelling backstory?
Slowdive, as a band, really doesn’t have some kind of disproportionate mythos built around a compelling backstory or gossip.
They didn’t bankrupt a record label, and despite a breakup following the release of Pygmalion, it doesn’t seem like inter-group tensions are something that they are associated with. They broke up, moved on to other things, and then reunited. Out of that reunion, we got this record, and as far as reunion records, or “comeback” records are, Slowdive is just fine. It’s the kind of record that the band’s original fans will certainly welcome, and the kind of record that those who discovered the band much later on will probably appreciate as well.
Arguably, Slowdive’s best material is on their sophomore effort, Souvlaki, and a record like this is successful enough overall that it isn’t going to be detrimental to the legacy they left behind. But, much like My Bloody Valentine, you have to wonder how, decades down the line, people will view a record like Slowdive. Will people still wax nostalgic about just how dreamy “Slomo” is, or will it just go down as “the album the band made 20+ years after breaking up?”
Rating: 3 out of 5
Slowdive out now via Dead Oceans.
Kevin Krein is a Minnesota based writer, and has been operating the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones since January 2013. For nearly as long, he’s been contributing to Bearded Gentlemen; and for nearly as long, he wrote “The Bearded Life” column for the Southern Minn Scene magazine. Since the summer of 2017, he began contributing “The Column of Disquiet” for The Next Ten Words. His writing has also appeared in The Wagazine, and in River Valley Woman. He is a vegan, a friend to all animals, and a huge jerk toward most people.