Time/Place: a Tuesday in mid-October, in my car, weaving through Northside Chicago traffic.
The mission: Instant 0 in the Universe, the new EP from Stereolab, the post-modern Matisse of European space pop. There was urgency in my very blood to hear it, like a long-awaited letter from a friend you were worried about. And indeed, many Stereolab fans have been worried about the group ever since the tragic death of long-time member Mary Hansen in December 2002. Hansen, perhaps best known musically as the smooth, rhythmic second vocalist whose oft-times scatty, spacey vocals were as much signature complements to Laetitia Sadier’s leads as the thick, carpety organs and sci-fi moogs that inevitably gave the ‘Lab its uniquely Euro-Go-Go positronic-raygun-of-fun sound.
Result: Stereolab has smoothly transitioned into a new shade of the self-styled color that has made their fans happy for more than a decade, evolving through the mists of Mary’s death and coming back with a collection of songs that is both reassuring and sublimely beautiful. Five songs, all of which drift within the band’s territorial waters but create variations on that sound; two of which use abrupt but manageable transitions to startle smoked out-vibes into more up-tempo logarithmic dance floor oddities; one of which, “Mass Riff,” presents a Talking Heads-type groove that sheds light over certain elements of albums past, as if the ‘Heads’ influence could always have been there, but not discovered until Stereolab’s sound was looked at a quantum level.
And maybe that’s what this recording has done, with Hansen’s death causing the group to take an atomic journey into its fundamental elements and components, feeling and values, so that as they healed from their grief (and we from ours as the people charting the journey) they became one again, funneling her essence and reasserting it into the proper channels, evolving as they would have with her, the fractured whole healing itself with the love of her memory.
Or maybe I’ve just over-thunk this one and the fact is Stereolab, even without the beautiful presence of one of its members, is one of the most truly unique and unstoppable forces in the Universe of Recorded Music, mutating yet again, music leaping from their fingertips, songs such as “Jaunty Monty and the Bubbles of Silence” caressing the listener’s imagination with their neon galaxy of poppy-abstractions and sugar-sweet hooks so that everyone can see that although we all die, the collaborations some make with others live on, expanding into the infinite. So too is this, another great piece of music from this generation’s stereo-pop masters.
Bottom line: I’m a huge fan of this band, and this is a cathartic album for anyone else who shares that trait. Instant 0 is another fine work in their catalogue, and maybe a way for all of us to find closure with Hansen’s death. As it says on the back cover, “Mary, thinking of you.” This EP, I think, shows that the band’s fans will be thinking of them for years to come.