Though he’s rightly regarded as an innovator rather than a tastemaker, never let it be said that The Cure’s Robert Smith doesn’t have an impeccable ear for great music—music that, most often, carries a certain aesthetic or spiritual kinship with his own. In 2019, he curated a lineup of some of the best bands of the last 20 years at Pasadena Daydream, with Mogwai and Throwing Muses sharing the stage with Emma Ruth Rundle and Deftones. And that same year, across the Atlantic, The Cure selected Irish group Just Mustard, then supporting their breakout shoegazing post-punk debut album Wednesday, to open for them at Malahide Castle in Dublin. Just one year earlier, they weren’t even sure if they’d sell all the copies of the album they had lying around their apartments.
Just Mustard are, naturally, descendants of the eerie, early strains of The Cure’s post-punk as they are a band reshaping it in their own image. Though dealt the same setbacks as every band on earth in 2020, the time spent further refining the details of their second album worked out to the group’s benefit, with greater focus and attention to detail on their second album, Heart Under. Their first for Partisan—home to fellow contemporary post-punk favorites Idles and recent tourmates Fontaines D.C.—Heart Under renders the band’s amorphous guitars and tense, taut rhythms in pristine clarity, a refinement of a great idea given the gift of an impeccable presentation.
The first song on Heart Under, “23,” is a concise glimpse into the sonic sphere that Just Mustard are building, but it’s representative of the whole: ominous goth-rock basslines snake beneath guitars that wail like angry apparitions, with vocalist Katie Ball providing tether to the material world via heavy clouds of reverb. The standouts on Heart Under are many, at turns more driving (“Still”), stripped to a stark and dub-like rhythmic sensibility (“I Am You”), or dripping with menace (“Seed”). All the same elements can be found in each song, though few of them could be described as “basic,” necessarily. It’s more that there are certain aspects that make any of these, definitively, a Just Mustard song, but the manner in which the band employ them is always changing.
It isn’t necessarily that Heart Under is dramatically more adventurous than its predecessor—Wednesday already offered something that few other bands could, even if its varied elements in isolation weren’t solely their invention. Instead, the album reaffirms this unique hybrid as one that’s theirs to own, a world they’ve built. Mystique permeates its open spaces, like the lingering drone of dark ambient dirge “Blue Chalk,” a work of slow-burning dread that finds the group gradually increasing the tension with slowly suffocating atmosphere and an electro-industrial pulse like a quickening heartbeat. Certain songs, like the dreamy “Early,” are less harrowing in effect, and the heavier beat of “In Shade” provides a backdrop for a surprising moment of (subtle) pop accessibility.
Those moments of tension and contrast, counterpoint and contradiction provide the gravitational force that hold everything together on Heart Under. In an album so rich in hypnotic aural textures and darkly captivating melodies, it’s ultimately that balance that proves to be Just Mustard’s greatest strength. There’s careful, thoughtfully planned architecture beneath every moment of aesthetic allure, even if it takes a few listens to fully make sense of how they’re held together.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.