MUSIC REVIEW: +-
POSTED 10:40am | 30 JUNE 2015
Last month Danish alt/prog rock quartet Mew released their sixth studio album, +- (pronounced 'plus minus'), their first in over five years since the epic No More Stories..., and their first since the return of original bassist Johan Wohlert after And the Glass Handed Kites. Mew have never lacked joy or energy, but the return of Johan to the group adds an extra sense of completeness to the record, which is audible in the production and arrangements of the ten tracks on the album.
Mew have always been a tough band to pin down categorically. I call them alt/prog rock, because that's the most obvious genre bracket that they loosely fall into, but others describe them as psychedelic rock, experimental rock, art rock, indie-stadium rock. It's not that they defy classification, but more that they do not fit comfortably within any box, or that an accurate description of their sound simply hasn't been coined yet. Their sound is not obtuse or inaccessible, though. They structure their material closely following conventions of rock, but they are not married to those conventions, and over the years have developed a unique sound that is equal parts their own sensibilities and influences mixed with their Nordic upbringing. They definitely don't sound like a USA or UK rock band, although they do perform lyrics in English.
What I'm getting at is, six albums in, Mew's sound continues to evolve and improve, becoming more defined and confidant and unique, while sounding very different to all their previous work (similar, I guess, to the constant evolution of Silverchair who, album to album, kept coming back with a new sound that was still distinctly Silverchair). And while it's still accessible to the first time listener and long-time fans (such as myself) alike, it does take time to grow on you. Where their earlier material, up to Frengers in 2003, was pretty straightforward, their material since And the Glass Handed Kites in 2006 has been deeply layered, so that the gorgeous complexity in their arrangements only reveals itself over time, after multiple listens. It makes for a rewarding experience, with each track something new with every extra listen, and switching between speakers and headphones a choice that can dramatically change the scope of the album from operatic to intimate and back again. Much of this is down to the members themselves, and the strength and design of their material, but special mention should be made of the work of producer Michael Beinhorn (Marilyn Manson's Mechanical Animals, Hole's Celebrity Skin, Soundgarden's Superunknown), who also produced And the Glass Handed Kites. He has proven himself as a producer who can intimately understand the sound of a band and help them develop their best studio material without altering their feel, unlike producers such as Bob Rock or Rick Rubin who inject much of themselves into the music they're producing.
+- opens with Satellites, also the lead single, which is twice as long as its radio edit. It acts as a gentle introduction to both the band and the album, easing in with harp-like triplets and soft strings, before light touches of bass and drums slip in underneath the near falsetto of lead singer Jonas Bjerre. On the minute mark we finally have the track break into a steady rhythm, but it still feels like it's building, and at 1:50 we hear the first chorus before the song really breaks out into a driving, almost dream-like, rock anthem. Every new verse and chorus that follows has a very different arrangement from the last that pulls the listener along (and is a treat to listen to through quality headphones). It encapsulates (or reminds you of) just about everything you need to know about Mew going into the rest of the album. They are striving for the epic - reaching beyond the stars and into your dreams - with their structure, performance, and production. It's quintessential Mew.
The second track, Witness, is a three minute zipper after the epic six minute opener. It kicks off with a drum fill followed by a distorted guitar riff backed by a quick rhythm, and this time the vocals enter in a lower register. It's a straight up rock tune driven by kick drum and bass guitar that functions as the flip side to Satellites and completes the introduction to the distinct sound of Mew. It's also the shortest track on the album.
The next two tracks, The Night Believer and Making Friends, are where the return of Johan feels like it makes its mark. Whether that's true or not, I don't know, because it's an intangible thing, and not something that was missing from the previous album, but there's something about these two tracks that sounds like the best of their material before he left has been married with the best of their material after he left. The lyrics, as impenetrable as ever, sound like they're referencing the feelings of being apart and the joy of coming back together again. In The Night Believer we hear "Are you still on their good side? // We missed you" and this is followed in Making Friends by "Beautiful, now // What if our song was forever?". One of the mainstays permeating all of Mew's music from the very beginning is this sense of yearning, of constant discovery, of ever-widening eyes taking in more of the world, of the beauty and scope of both the cosmos and the human mind. This feeling comes to the forefront in Making Friends, where it slowly opens up like a flower in spring, every four bars adding new instrumentation and arrangement to the mix, varying from soft horns to scatty vocalisations and choral shouts over an increasingly syncopated rhythm, before exploding with colour during the final verse and chorus, after which it slowly folds back in on itself and gently fades out.
That ending very distinctly closes out the opening third of +-. The opening four tracks each offer something new and different, but don't stray too far from the standard formula Mew have developed. It prepares the listener for the middle third of the album, where they experiment and take bigger risks, but before we get there we take something of a detour with Clinging to a Bad Dream. This track opens with a fade in on 30 seconds of atmosphere sound taken from what sounds like a suburban garden. Coupled with the fade out on the previous track this is very clearly a space where the listener is invited to take a breath, take stock of the first four tracks, and prepare for what's next. The song builds quickly, playing with many different musical ideas, and reaches its crescendo at about halfway through its 6:43 running time, before it very slowly crumbles over the final two minutes before disappearing completely by the end. There is effectively 30 seconds of silence at either end of Clinging to a Bad Dream, possibly a structural choice to symbolise the meaning of the title - drifting off to sleep and slowly waking up?
From here we get to what I think is the highlight of the album, My Complications, appearing right in the middle, which I doubt is accidental. It's on the heavy side, very rocky, with a tough intro riff, big drums and bass, and plays out at a quick pace. It's a big example of what I was talking about in the beginning, about peeling back layer after layer of production, arrangement, design, and meaning, and only ever discovering more layers. It's got a weird balance between the joyful and the melancholy. On the surface it has a clear hook and a bursting chorus, full of hope, but the lyrics suggest, I think, something to do with the sad story of Typhoid Mary, hinting at a darker underbelly. These are both the joys and frustrations of listening to Mew - sometimes they can be near impossible to fully understand underneath all the bombast and broken English. It's such a beautiful, epic song, though.
This is followed by Water Slides, another weird mix full of experimentation wrapped in a rock shell. It's a bit gentler and more thoughtful than My Complications, but is no less another highlight on a strong album. Rounding out this middle third is the four minute long Interview the Girls which sounds so sweet, but on reflection sounds more like a begging to return to either the good old days or the good days to come: "Day will come // Days have gone // While I was here waiting". The first four tracks and the second four tracks definitely feel like they belong grouped together, which leaves the final two tracks to sit out on their own and complete the journey of +-.
Rows is the penultimate track, and also the longest, clocking in at nearly eleven minutes. Where the album as a whole has a feeling of a journey of discovery, or perhaps a journey through dreams, Rows covers its own version of this journey by itself. Its essentially split into three sections, although each section flows seamlessly into the next. In starts in a place of quiet contemplation, almost soft-rock, evoking sailing in a gentle breeze across clear waters: "It’s alright now // Anything you can wish for, you can do". In the middle it really opens itself up, reaching beyond the stratosphere, no longer sailing through calm water, but rather sailing through the stars. Strings swell, the melody builds. There's a real sense of epic wonder through this section. It's reminiscent almost of the Interstellar score by Hans Zimmer. The final section slows down and simplifies before transforming into an action-adventure style ending to the track, before the whole thing just fades out before it gets to the climax, leaving you unsure of how the journey should end.
The album ends with the second-longest track, Cross the River on Your Own, which is almost a promise between Mew and its fans, or possibly between the members of Mew itself: "You be good to me // And I, I’ll be good to you // Don’t let go of your light // It’s your best friend in the world". At its core is sweet piano, and while the song reaches highs and lows, it never lets go of that sweet core. It's a gentle end to what is a pretty rocking album.
The overall feeling I get is that Mew continues to improve on each release. They continue to break new and interesting ground while keeping their unique sound. +- is a continuation of this. The biggest draw is how they evoke certain feelings and emotions with their music and production. Forget about fully understanding the lyrics and just accept the ride. I'm not sure whether it's better than No More Stories..., but it's definitely equal to it, and rewards repeated listens across multiple devices. The drumming of Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen continues to be some of the most inventive rock percussion going around, and the soaring guitar of Bo Madsen is a large part of their distinct sound.
Playlist: Constant rotation