The mark of a good dream pop record, to me, is whether it can conjure those broken-brained and melting-hearted years in my mid-twenties. A time when I was attempting to finally live the wild-child college life I’d wanted but didn’t get to have the first time, due to too much trauma and too much untreated mental illness and then the big breakdown that came after. Since The Cure utterly transformed the game with their perfect magnum opus Disintegration, one of the three cornerstones of dream pop (alongside any given peak Cocteau Twins and The Unforgettable Fire by U2), that aching fog-drenched sadness has been the core of dream pop, at least in affect.
Still Corners have a good track record with delivering this sound. Their 2013 record Strange Pleasures was for a while (and, on some days, still is) their peak, sounding like a heatwave rippling off asphalt trapped between two impassive and dispassionate brick buildings, or the brightness of summer fireworks disappearing in the haze of smoke and fog that clings to the beach in the evening. Slow Air makes these metaphors more direct with its title, a move mirrored in the wavering guitar, made to wiggle in the air with the vibrato bar like a bad Las Vegas cliche. But they are motifs of kitsch that are deliberately placed, like the way The Smiths wore beatniks as costumes over their otherwise reverb-laden post-punk. The collection of ’90s alt-rock, shoegaze, dream pop and ethereal wave influences laid over a more direct pop-rock skeleton is very deliberate, one assembled by the caring hand of Greg Hughes, the band’s primary songwriter and instrumentalist.
Hughes extends a keen producer’s ear here, offering little sonic nuggets and gentle details that don’t recur, making appearances only on the first verse or the second chorus, so that each section has some slight identity to it. It’s mindful arranging and production, and it benefits these songs, which chug along and are, for the most part, the strongest set Still Corners has offered. It’s not 2013 anymore, and the notion that a band like this could change the game is more or less quashed; M83 have devolved beyond reason and the other heavy-hitter, Beach House, seems to far and away have won pole position. But that doesn’t mean that Still Corners can’t turn in good songs. Sure, they play the genre to its hilt and, admittedly, seem to have little in the way of vision outside of its bounds, but for a dream pop record, it accomplishes its job with remarkable efficiency. The only major critique I have of it, aside from its relatively tame ambitions, is that it’s a single song too long, reaching its emotional climax on the ninth track with the tenth and final song feeling superfluous to the emotional arc building up to it.
Ultimately, the success of these records for me is built on how well they can bring me back to that ugly misaligned darkness that swallowed up so many years in my twenties with alcohol and drugs and killed people I knew, a fate I was lucky to escape. This is music of a specific temperament and a specific emotional response to it; pain, confusion, and yearning to be free but without any clear road out of the miserable but not apocalyptic place you’ve found yourself in, just miserable enough to hate it but not miserable enough for anyone else to care. Slow Air takes me there. For the first nine of 10 tracks, I am back in a place that I left years ago, and the way my memory plays tricks on me as the album plays makes me think inexplicably that I am 24 again and not half a decade older than that. It’s okay to sonically be trapped in 2013 if emotionally you can pull your listener there, and on Slow Air, Still Corners can.