Shoegaze ages remarkably well. And it does, indeed, age—or perhaps better put, it evolves. M83′s Anthony Gonzalez transformed My Bloody Valentine’s haze-and-whoosh into a cathedral of electronics, while The War on Drugs took a foundation of roots rock and ran it through drones, loops and distortion until it came out the other end sounding altogether unlike the American rock ‘n’ roll songbook. There’s a naturally timeless quality to the idea of using a heavy dose of effects pedals to make loud music sound airy and weightless, to creating seemingly impossible contrasts out of deceptively simple tools (as My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless was made). And as shoegazers themselves age, such as when My Bloody Valentine presented a matured version of their psychedelic guitar symphonies on mbv, the magic that they’re capable of wielding isn’t left behind.
Slowdive had already displayed their own fascinating evolution during the first period of their career, debuting as a Cocteau Twins-like dream-pop band with 1991′s Just for a Day, perfecting their own heady guitar-pop hallucinations with 1993′s Souvlaki and then exiting on the mostly Neil-Halstead-gone-solo post-rock experimentalism of 1995′s Pygmalion. These three albums present three entirely different versions of ostensibly the same band, though they’re all aesthetically connected, if not necessarily in approach. When Slowdive announced their return to the studio after more than 20 years, it also left an open question as to which version of the band—or perhaps one closer to Halstead and Rachel Goswell’s folky Mojave 3—would be present on their eventual fourth full-length.
The answer, in short, is every version of the band and none of them all at once. Slowdive’s self-titled album, their first in 22 years, feels recognizably like the same band that made an underground masterpiece of graceful, gradual and melancholy beauty on Souvlaki. Some of that is textural; most of it is in the heavenly vocal harmonies of Halstead and Goswell, whose voice pairing defined Slowdive in the ’90s. By and large, however, this is a markedly different version of the band than one that they’ve presented before. Aesthetically, they skate over similar textures as they did before, but the patterns they create feel new. Against any and all semblance of familiarity, they evoke a feeling of excitement.
Slowdive offered some suggestion that they’d end up here with the release of first single “Star Roving,” a song that Halstead himself said “feels as fun and as relevant playing together now as it did when we first started.” He’s not wrong about how fun it is. It has energy and momentum, it’s dreamy, and it rocks as hard as Slowdive ever has—more so, even. And, indeed, there’s a sense of fun on Slowdive that feels just slightly sunnier than the hazy dirges of their heyday, but not overbearingly so. “Star Roving” isn’t the only track of its kind here, either, followed up later on in the album with the dense rush of “Everyone Knows.” Each track feels like part of a greater whole in the overall Slowdive body of work, but they stand alone as a modern representation of what Slowdive can be. They offer just as much melody to get lost in as they do ambience and expansive, enveloping sound.
Slowdive’s always been at their best when emphasizing the slow part of their name, however, and the most patient, spacious moments here are those that provide the greatest depth. The recent single “Sugar For the Pill” is a particularly stunning moment, a balance between the band’s own spaciously dreamy textures and a more strongly emphasized pop element. It feels more mature and measured than before, even for a band known for taking their time to allow each moment to unfold and reveal itself. There’s very little in the way to obscure Halstead’s chorus of “And I rolled away/ Said we never wanted much,” alluding to the idea of things that were, things that could have been, and things that didn’t come to pass. The band glides along a comparable BPM toward something much more climactic with the noisier “Go Get It,” which erupts into a call-and-response chorus in which Halstead and Goswell trade off: “I want to see it/ I want to feel it.” With closer “Falling Ashes,” however, the strata of effects is mostly removed entirely, faded to a background blur against a delicate twinkle of piano that feels connected to the delicate grace of recent Radiohead.
It’s not surprising that Slowdive’s return to the studio sounds great; if nothing else, the influential shoegazers could be counted on to make something that’d be a hell of a headphone experience. What does come as something of a surprise is how natural it feels. These are big, ambitious songs, by and large, but they exude a warmth and energy that generally takes some time for freshly reunited bands to cultivate. Slowdive is the sound of a band excited by creating gorgeously layered rock music together again and invigorated by the seemingly limitless possibilities.