Mew provide glitter and brass on the uneven Visuals

Mew - VisualsIn every adjacent universe, of course, Mew are global superstars, illuminating the planet’s stadiums and amphitheatres with starry-eyed space rock like it was their birthright. There, we are a little freer in every sense: Denmark’s newfound status as global ambassadors has triggered a more progressive approach to climate change; “She Came Home For Christmas” is consistently number one in every country between the months of November and March; Muse are invited – more out of politeness than camaraderie – to accompany the band as support on their world tour. When + - arrived in 2015, there was nothing bold or iconoclastic about calling it the year’s best rock album, because in that reality, it was self-evident. Even the U.S. President, Bernie Sanders, talks about his excitement in the build-up to new album Visuals. It looks swell.

In this crummy simulacrum, however, we need to talk about why none of that’s happened. Perhaps it’s because Mew have traditionally been an experimental, prog-leaning rock band with glittering pop tendencies; since their last record, the sparkling hooks have been pushed front and centre, bolstered by a muscular rhythm section in between. Stylistically, the shift was reminiscent of M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming: an artist known for darker, more quietly epic soundscapes trading down for major-key schmaltz. That album felt lightweight, and if “Midnight City” won Anthony Gonzalez a few extra fans and a place on the Made in Chelsea soundtrack, it came at the cost of gifting the world another Saturdays = Youth. In reality, Mew are probably still too weird for that kind of crossover success, but they’re certainly a lot more streamlined than the band who put out Frengers.

Now back to life as a trio following the departure of founding guitarist Bo Madsen, they’ve drafted in Mads Wegner for the recording of Visuals, a former bandmate from bassist Johan Wohlort’s days in The Storm. Musically, there’s not much here to suggest it’s dramatically affected their sound; the only pointed departure is the bizarro “Candy Pieces All Smeared Out”, featuring a sludge-metal-with-brass section that stands out like a dildo in a jewellery store window. Unlike heavier tracks from their past (the barrelling “Apocalypso” springs to mind), here it feels like something of a novelty, its inclusion catered to remind the listener that the Danes are still a warped and unpredictable proposition. Brass, horns and even saxophone are deployed liberally throughout, and unfortunately, they also arrive as extraneous points of interest on a few of Visuals’ more meandering numbers: “Learn Our Crystals” and “Twist Quest” form an uninspired middle section, with Jonas Bjerre’s typically opaque lyrics sounding more insipid than mysterious.

There are moments of outrageous splendour to be salvaged, and Bjerre’s voice is still, under the right conditions, an instrument of heartbreak. Bookending the album are “Nothingness and No Regrets” and “Carry Me to Safety”, two prime examples of what Mew are capable of producing at full stretch. The former, in particular, imbues the record with a sense of urgency that it rarely recaptures: “In our polyester death, there is nothingness and no regrets… We could have made it. I believe we faded. And soon the world will too.” The latter is a torch-song closer (as well as the album's first single, unusually) and, following the diminutive but charming "Shoulders" and "Zanzibar", provides a more satisfying finale.

In a recent interview, the band discussed their economical approach to recording this album. They wanted the process to be organic, laid out “spontaneously” and “keeping the energy they’d generated on the road [during the + - tour] going”. It makes sense because more than anything Visuals feels a little rushed, whatever residual energy left over from that race around the globe now spent. I hope Mew come back reinvigorated. Frankly, if it takes them six years of labouring in an underground bunker to produce another “Rows”, that’s a world I’d be happy to live in.

Release: 28th April  2017, PIAS


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