What can a rock band possibly achieve by reuniting after two decades? Most, if they had any hits, will embark on a nostalgia trip for their fans, who will almost certainly be of a specific generation and care little for the modern music scene. New recorded material rarely comes out of these reformed bands, and if it does, tends to retread instead of reinvigorate. Well, what if the band was never very successful to begin with and fizzled out after just a handful of years? What if they find themselves compelled to reunite because musical currents have once again shifted in their direction and a new generation of fans has emerged?
Such is the case with Slowdive, an English band who were an anchor of the brief early 1990s scene known as shoegaze. In short, they make majestic pop with hushed vocals buried in oceanic waves of guitar. There’s been a groundswell of interest in shoegaze over the last few years, prompting Slowdive’s contemporaries Lush, Ride, and My Bloody Valentine to get back together and release new music. And so we have Slowdive’s first album in 22 years, a self-titled effort signaling a new beginning.
What’s first apparent about this music is how fresh their sound remains, and how much clarity modern audio engineering has given it. Their classic material was often a smear—a deliberate choice but one that left a lot missing to the ears. It’s incredible how such density of sound can permit a multitude of details to break through. Each guitar ring and snare or cymbal hit is distinguishable, yet they all blend together in a pleasing musical squall. One can revel in all the planned and unplanned harmonic interaction among the instruments. This is music to let consume you but can also be inspected upon close listen.
The songs are primarily bundles of guitar texture—which chime, grind, or wash through the mix as needed—and arrangements that put the ingredients to use in fascinating ways. On “Don’t Know Why”, the incrementally layered figures resemble endless flights of stairs or a deepening spiral orbit. Unexpected flourishes jump out like signposts in a haze. The rubbery vocal tic during “Sugar for the Pill” adds an uncharacteristically soulful note. The raucous distant tambourine at the end of “Everyone Knows” holds its ground after all else has gone silent.
The lyrics come across as impressionistic, partly due to writing style and partly due to the shoegaze hallmark of placing vocals deep in the mix. We hear of wistful memories, yearning for a better place, missed chances, and endings with reluctant acceptance. This is music for deep reflection on broad possibilities and complex feelings. The album concludes with a relatively spare piano-driven tune, “Falling Ashes”, that is just dripping with regret. The mood is cohesive down to the album’s cover—a silhouette of a dreaming face reminiscent of a solar eclipse.
Interviews reveal that Slowdive hope to release more new music and go in a less expected direction. It will be exciting to hear where one of the standard bearers of a genre with surprising longevity and relevance will take it next.