The Radio Dept. have many strengths as a band, but prolificacy isn’t one of them. Having released only three full-length albums and a handful of EPs in their 15 years as a band, they have a slightly better track record than The Wrens. That said, what they have released has been nothing less than excellent. Debut album Lesser Matters revealed the Swedish outfit as a sublime force of elegant dream pop, while its 2006 follow-up Pet Grief took on a more danceable direction, bridging the gap between fellow Labrador signees The Legends and more house-influenced countrymen like Studio and The Tough Alliance. After a lengthy period of anticipation, quiet and release date pushbacks, The Radio Dept. has finally handed in the third installment on their path toward beat-friendly pop ecstasy, and yet again, the band has made their limited output count.
A wonderful new chapter in The Radio Dept.’s legacy of haze and melody, Clinging to a Scheme maximizes their talents in a minimal structure. Its ten tracks total up to just less than 35 minutes, though each one of those minutes is euphoria. The album finds the group exploring dance music even further, with more than a few tracks boasting some Balearic influence, not to mention a little Madchester bounce here and there. However, this is by no means an album of bassy club anthems or acid-fried neon bangers. There’s a sense of melancholy cast over the album that makes its brightest moments more bittersweet, and its softer sounds murkier and disoriented. In other words, it’s the best set of shoegazer songs not to require earplugs.
Sputtering single “David” preceded the album, rife with lazy beats and a batch of keyboard sounds plucked straight from the late ’80s. Whatever cheese it piles on, however, seems to work in a mesmerizing unit, with glockenspiel, electric piano and Johan Duncanson’s effects-treated vocals complementing each other perfectly. Meanwhile, second single “Heaven’s On Fire” is simply breathtaking, an impeccable creation of gorgeous melody and intricate instrumentation. It’s as amazing as pop music gets.
As driven or informed by programmed beats or synth as Clinging to a Scheme may be, there’s an organic quality to its songs that lend them an instant accessibility and warmth. Leadoff track “Domestic Scene” is one of the most strongly guitar-driven tracks on the album, but also one of the quietest, hazily floating atop a racing heartbeat tempo. Similarly, a guitar riff is the central hook of “This Time Around,” though by no means is it noisy or overbearing. In fact, Duncanson’s vocals feature more distortion, which offers a wonderfully trippy juxtaposition. “Never Follow Suit” is more about beats than riffs, yet most of all, it’s about gossamer synths and a heartbreaking melody. The all-too-brief “Four Months in the Shade” works up an ecstatic pace beneath heavy sheets of noise and distortion, and “The Video Dept.” is the closest the band comes to pure shoegazer guitar, here, delicately washing their chords in the slightest sheen of noise.
Arriving four years after The Radio Dept.’s last full-length offering, Clinging to a Scheme is a pristine and stunning reward to those patient souls who awaited its every meticulous note. Once again, The Radio Dept. have delivered on the promise of their ever-evolving dream pop, delivering what may very well be their best album. The benefit of keeping scarce means minimizing the risk of becoming stale, but for the life of me, I can’t see an album like this wearing out its welcome.
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.