Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Slowdive everything is alive

Dead Oceans
Dead Oceans

Everyone was coming back from the dead. In the first half of the ’10s, Slowdive joined a crowd of long-departed bands deciding to give it another go. Many of these were satisfied to tour the festival circuit, indulge fans’ nostalgia for a little victory lap and a solid paycheck, then return to the ether. Some dared to make new music, and some succeeded, though far more of them returned with albums that were inevitably pale echoes of past glories. In 2017, Slowdive did the unthinkable. They released a self-titled comeback, their first album in over 20 years, that doubled as reclamation and reboot. And against all odds, it was arguably the best collection of music they had ever released.

Even before Slowdive, it had been a successful few years since the shoegaze icons first reunited. The stakes were low. They would play some shows, and they had little sense of how interested people would be. Slowdive had dissolved as a more divisive prospect, derided by a British press that had moved on to the mid-’90s Britpop frenzy, and sidelined in the annals of shoegaze lore next to the towering madman genius mythology of My Bloody Valentine. But when they returned, they were greeted as the greats they always were, and the palpable excitement ignited something in them.

Imagine pulling that off, then having to consider, at all, doing it again. Slowdive were now more revered than ever, and reportedly more agreeable as a group with everyone in their mature middle age. But where their influential early work once cast a long shadow across decades, now there was something else entirely: a second act anchored by an implausible instant-classic reunion album. The years passed quickly. It wasn’t clear that there ever would be another Slowdive album; apparently the band members themselves weren’t sure if there’d be either. But now six years on from Slowdive, the band has returned once more with everything is alive, another rich and vivid chapter in this new stretch of the band’s story.

After touring heavily behind Slowdive, the band’s five members — Neil Halstead, Rachel Goswell, Christian Savill, Nick Chaplin, Simon Scott — took a breather and occupied themselves otherwise. For Halstead, the band’s primary songwriter, that meant chipping away on more synth-based compositions he initially intended for a potential solo album. Instead, when 2020 arrived, he thought about bringing it to the band since they couldn’t tour. Halstead’s original vision for everything is alive was a “more minimal electronic record.” Once it ended up with the rest of Slowdive, they pushed the songs closer to their established wheelhouse. It results in a sort of fusion, with plenty of the warm comforts of the Slowdive we know, while also allowing the band to quietly explore new territory.

Halstead’s description could suggest an about-face as significant as the immersive soundscapes of Souvlaki giving way to the bleary, broken-down Pygmalion. Slowdive to everything is alive is more of a logical progression, but it indeed finds the band in a more contemplative space, even for them. While Slowdive sounded bold, a resurrection occurring up in the stratosphere, everything is alive is all blurs and whispers, with moments far more bare and intimate than the otherworldly sound of its predecessor. Thanks to the magic touch of engineer Shawn Everett — the prolific mixer who has made albums by the War On Drugs and Big Thief sound so mesmerizing — Slowdive’s mellower mood sounds different than before. everything is alive isn’t washed out. It’s more like deep interior spaces rendered in hi-def.

Like Slowdive, everything is alive is a compact eight songs, yet expansive in nature. The synth burbles of opener “shanty” immediately introduce the aqueous shimmer that defines the album — gentle, yet propulsive, the song is a perfect curtain rise. But everything is alive wanders, enigmatic, from there. Immediately after “shanty,” the band pivots to an instrumental called “a prayer remembered.” They swing from infectious, gorgeous sighs like “alife” to something as tangible and stripped-down as “andalusia plays.” The latter is the rare literal scene occurring in a Slowdive song, Halstead’s account of a moment in a real-life relationship. He’s remarked that he isn’t sure how or why he ended up writing it, but the song also feels like a little skeleton key to the album, with lyrics about remembered prayers and chains and clouds that lend other tracks their titles.

Yearning and a sense of doomed romance are nothing new to Slowdive, the band that epitomized the more sensual side of shoegaze. But the band has also emphasized the impact of enduring love on the album. Goswell and Scott both lost parents in 2020, and while you can read into the meditative timbre of everything is alive as reflecting the weight of grief, the title is more a clue to the album’s overall character. Halstead said it felt pointless to make a dark record at this juncture in their lives — and, perhaps, all our lives emerging from the pandemic — and indeed everything is alive takes its synth cascades and characteristically watercolor guitars far away from old shoegaze tropes, like walls of sound as emotional shields. With the band’s fanbase skewing far younger in recent years and their music landing on playlists alongside the likes of Phoebe Bridgers, you’d almost think that ethos would align with the narcotized chill-out aesthetic of some semi-recent pop trends. Instead, everything is alive picks up where Slowdive left off, and turns the shoegaze conversation under a new light: They use this music not as numb escape, but a conduit for wonder.

Accordingly, the band have taken their time to craft another series of stunning, crushing moments that rival any of their key songs. Like “Star Roving” before it, lead single “kisses” feels like an immediate entry into the pantheon of Slowdive’s finest work. Its songcraft and swoon make it an obvious standout, but the album’s most evocative moments otherwise come from the band taking this version of their sound and pushing it to outer limits, near abstracting it — as in “shanty” or the penultimate epic “chained to a cloud.” Closer “the slab” is the album’s sole moment of heightened intensity, a churn meant to sound as mysteriously monolithic as its name. After the soft-focus glow of the rest of the album, it’s a dramatic finale.

It’s a rare, rare thing for bands — true bands, democracies or, as Slowdive think of themselves, the sum of individual parts — to age gracefully, let alone locate a latter-day relevance. everything is alive is a portrait of a group far from stagnation, far from rote repetition of predictable elements. It strikes a balance between the familiar aspects of their personality, and a continued tone of renewal. It is a smaller resurrection this time around, but one that feels like just as singular of a gift. Who knows when, or if, Slowdive will do it again. But their new album solidifies the argument begun by their reunion, and then again by Slowdive. Now in their fifties, this band is still on a journey towards something, to further-flung mystical corners than they’ve already traveled to in their music. On everything is alive, Slowdive aren’t just an unlikely story of survival: They are evolving.

everything is alive is out 9/1 on Dead Oceans.

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