Before we dive into what Asobi Seksu is doing now, let’s review a little. Their 2005 eponymous debut was energetic but boilerplate shoegaze, but just a year later on Citrus, the band broke their sound wide open. More melodic than before, with subtle rippling depth, it left the My Bloody Valentine grind behind and built their own buzzing, gauzy layers. 2009’s Hush then moved away from that rock energy, perhaps overplaying the band’s tendency to shimmer with a new dream-pop bent.
Throw in the acoustic record, Rewolf, and you’ve got a band that just won’t sit still. But what’s interesting about Fluorescence is how it revisits all these shifts in the band’s sound, and shows them learning from and improving upon their earlier grind, while still struggling to mine slick dream-pop for energy. The first two songs, “Coming Up” and “Trails” delve back into the buzzing layers that made Citrus so engaging, but they add a more frayed edge. The result still hint at their shoegazing forefathers, but this is very much their sound, a self-assured mix of driving drums and tangled guitars that clears out at all the right moments to let Yuki Chikudate’s voice shine through.
There are a few other moments, like “Trance Out,” that show the muscled rock power the band is capable of, but it’s “Leave the Drummer Out There,” the album’s huge middle track, that is the most compelling moment here. It’s realizes an ambition that’s always been hinted at in Asobi Seksu’s work, meshing that fuzzy past with the dreamier present with an impressive, even cinematic size. It also acts as a binder for Fluorescence, providing a much needed middle-ground between the far poles of churning rock and spacy pop on the record.
Although, as impressive as it is, it can’t quite hold up those songs when the band delves into its dreamier side. Like Hush before it, Fluorescence sometimes sounds a bit precious. “Perfectly Chrystal,” with its airy keyboards and overly simple beat is a slick and (unfortunately) perfectly named song. The cool and spacy “Counterglow” trudges along, taking too long to develop, stalling where it should be building. The biggest let down on the record, though, is “Sighs,” which is hooky enough to be a hit single, if only it weren’t bogged down by overbearing synthesizers. James Hanna’s guitar work is always resonant, always swelling with layers, and these songs avoid him, for some reason, in favor of keys that don’t feel as distinct or powerful.
What’s clear in Fluorescence is that Asobi Seksu has an impressive breadth of talent. But what is also clear is that the band may be steering away from its strengths. The most powerful moments here reimagine their sound at its best without ever retreading. The rest of it, however, glitters far too much for its own good.