Tom’s not doing AOTW this week, so I’m pinch-hitting for him. And I’m happy to be doing so, because I’m writing about one of my favorite records of 2015. But before I get to that, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another worthy album that’s out today — Blur’s The Magic Whip.
There are a lot of similarities between that album and the one I’m actually reviewing, Mew’s +-. Both records arrive after lengthy hiatuses: Blur’s last, Think Tank, came out in 2003, although they’ve dropped a handful of singles in the intervening years; Mew, meanwhile, haven’t released anything at all since the 2009 LP No More Stories Are Told Today, I’m Sorry They Washed Away // No More Stories, The World Is Grey, I’m Tired, Let’s Wash Away. Both records feature the return of a founding member who was absent last time around: For Blur, it’s guitarist Graham Coxon; for Mew, it’s bassist Johan Wohlert. (Notably, both bands are quartets who recorded their previous albums as trios rather than replace the missing component.) Both records were made by European acts (Blur are from England; Mew are from Denmark) with traditional rock-band configurations (vocals/guitars/bass/drums) who come from a classic-rock lineage and who could appeal to “rockist” tastes, but who don’t pander to those tastes or subscribe to any orthodoxies. These are singular bands who have spent their long careers developing singular sounds. Both +- and The Magic Whip are strange and uncompromising records — not difficult records, but weird ones. I’ve spent less time with The Magic Whip, and I’m still trying to decide if I love it or merely like it a lot. But I’ve been listening to +- for a few months, and I’ve been enamored with the thing since the very first spin.
Mew’s sound was firmly established in 1997, with the release of the band’s debut album, A Triumph For Man. It’s a sound that draws primarily from post-rock (Sigur Rós, Stereolab) and prog (Yes, Rush), but displays traits of psychedelia, indie rock, emo, shoegaze, and pop, too. The most recognizable element is Jonas Bjerre’s high-gliding tenor, which hasn’t really changed at all over the past two decades, and which therefore provides a sonic through-line for the band’s entire career. That voice is so distinct and consistent that it seamlessly connects a song like “She Came Home For Christmas” (the first and only single released off A Triumph For Man) with a song like “Witness” (the third and most recent single released off +-), so that both songs sound like not only the work of the same artist, but like they could appear on the same album, maybe in succession.
That’s an illusion, though. With each new album, Mew have moved further away from traditional sounds and structures; they’ve become more adventurous, more experimental. But they’ve also increasingly embraced bigger, prettier, stickier melodies. It’s a strange dichotomy that reached something of an apotheosis on 2009’s No More Stories, which contrasted prog-metal with bubblegum pop, krautrock with bedroom folk, never feeling like it belonged to any of those genres — or any other genre, either. It’s truly otherworldly stuff.
In some ways, +- might feel like a step back toward this world. It’s Mew’s lushest, least discordant collection. In a world where Walk The Moon’s Rick Springfield/Eddie Money throwback “Shut Up And Dance” is a top-10 hit, it’s not insane to imagine a song or two off +- making some waves in the mainstream. I don’t think it’ll happen, but I don’t think it’s out of the question. Either way, though, it would be a mistake to conflate Mew’s synth-y, sweet confections with those of, say, Passion Pit, just as it would be a mistake to write off the glossy, glorious +- as a move toward the center. This might be Mew’s most accessible album, but it also might be their most complex. The rhythms (courtesy of Wohlert and drummer Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen) attack at odd, unlikely angles, but surge like four-on-the-floor pop. Bo Madsen’s guitars are squiggly and sharp at one moment, wall-of-sound huge the next. Every single audible element here feels carefully chosen and deliberately placed. From a distance, it all sounds anthemic — monolithic, even — but get up close and you can plainly make out the endless layers and meticulous construction. I’ll put it another way: No More Stories was my favorite album of 2009, and I was more than ready for a follow-up by 2012; by that point, I was anxiously waiting and on the lookout. I spent 2013 in the same state. And 2014, too. But when I finally heard +-, the long delay seemed totally self-explanatory — Mew had obviously spent every single waking moment of the last six years painstakingly perfecting these songs.
In that sense, +- has more in common with D’Angelo’s long-gestating Black Messiah than it does Blur’s quickly assembled Magic Whip. Like Black Messiah, +- is a cathedral built of countless instrumental blocks, individual performances that are deftly delivered, resulting in a monument that revels in the sheer glory of sound. But where Black Messiah at least feels improvisatory, +- has the grid-like precision of Pinback. That can give the album an airless quality that might leave some listeners cold. (An even better comparison than Black Messiah might be Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, which was eight years in the making, and which has many of the same clean lines and gleaming surfaces as +-.) But it’s not a cold record. It’s inviting, resonant, rich. Bjerre’s dreamlike lyrics dwell in nostalgia, loss, and hope, and his dextrous delivery gives them a visceral impact. If anything, it’s an album that asks the listener to feel — maybe even forces the listener to feel.
+- was produced by Michael Beinhorn, who also produced Mew’s excellent 2005 album, And The Glass Handed Kites, but is probably best known for his work on some of the slickest records to emerge from the mid-’90s alternative scene: Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Hole’s Celebrity Skin, Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals. And like those albums, +- envelops you, dealing in a broad spectrum of styles in which you are slowly submerged. Opener and lead single “Satellites” has the Broadway-prog grandeur of Muse or My Chemical Romance. The pillowy, textured “Making Friends” reminds me of both David Sylvian and Peter Gabriel. “Clinging To A Bad Dream” recalls the Nu Balearic subgenre largely spearheaded by Dan Lissvik in the early aughts on records by anonymous Euro acts like Studio and A Mountain Of One. These are disparate sounds, but here, Mew claim ownership of them all.
The album has two notable guest performances, both of which pay major dividends. The first comes from the New Zealand singer Kimbra, who lends vocals to “The Night Believer,” trading lines with Bjerre, giving his angelic presence a corporeal foil. The second is delivered by Bloc Party guitarist Russell Lissack, who both played on and co-wrote the best (or second best) song on +-, “My Complications.” Lissack’s fleet, rhythmic style is pretty unmistakable, and its hard angles provide a powerful counterpoint to Mew’s vast, sumptuous bombast. When the song goes airborne in its final two minutes, with Wohlert’s lite-disco bass echoing Lissack’s racing guitars, the uplift feels especially well earned. The other option for best (or second best) song is +-‘s closing track, “Cross The River On Your Own,” a devastating ballad that starts at near-silence and steadily swells over the course of seven and a half minutes, traversing a topograhic ocean or two in the voyage to its constellation-high climax. It’s an astonishing piece of music, and a fitting capper for this astonishing album.
It’s difficult, frankly, to contextualize Mew, because they seem to have neither peers nor imitators. They’re not part of a scene and they’re not representatives of a movement. They can seem aloof or high-minded; their album covers and titles are uninviting, if not outright ugly (to the point that they now seem deliberately trollish). But the music made by Mew is almost miraculously beautiful. It demands awe, but it deserves awe, too. It might be another six years before Mew return — and it might actually be even longer still. That’s ok. +- is big enough to bridge that span, however long it may be. It’s an exhilarating journey, and it offers a world of amazing things to see and hear along the way.
+- is out now via Play It Again Sam.
Other albums of note out today:
- Josh Groban’s collection of Broadway covers, Stages
- The self-titled debut album from Stereogum Band To Watch American Wrestlers (which was already released in the US but gets its European release today)
- Zac Brown Band’s crossover-country record Jekyll + Hyde
- Bill Fay’s delicate but powerful Who Is The Sender?
- Nai Harvest’s ’90s-evoking rocker, Hairball
- Colin Stetson + Sarah Neufeld’s purely instrumental, expertly composed Never Were The Way She Was
- George FitzGerald’s glimmering, melancholy Fading Love
- Detroit post-punk band Turn To Crime’s Actions
- Braids’ melodic, genre-bending, atmospheric Deep In The Iris
- Raekwon’s grandiose, swaggy Fly International Luxurious Art
- Paul De Jong’s eclectic, fun If
- Robert Pollard’s jaunty, upbeat Faulty Superheroes
- Mini Dresses groovy, gloomy FOUR
- Father/Daughter Records’ DIY heavy-hitter compilation Faux Real II
- Bent Denim’s drowsy, depressive, and uniquely modern Romances You
- Bell Witch’s suffocating, funereal Four Phantoms