Based on the band’s sound, it’s fitting that Slowdive both went away and came back the way it did. The group faded out 22 years ago, with the excellent, spacious Pygmalion serving more as a Neil Halstead record than a full-band Slowdive album. And with that the band splintered into solo projects, other bands, and a new country-rock direction for Halstead and Rachel Goswell in Mojave 3. But the band’s return has been just as fitting, materializing again on big stages and, after making a mark again as a live outfit, now drifting back into the studio to make a new record.
The new record, aptly eponymous, feels deliberate as a result of all this time. It’s not an excuse to have some new material to play on stage, and it’s not some back-looking cash-in. Like most of the best reunion albums, this one plays like the band not just wanted to make it, but needed to, and took its time doing it. The resulting album is fantastic and, despite being so deliberate, feels fresh and immediate throughout.
As usual, Halstead and company are not shy on atmosphere. Opener “Slomo” undulates with rippling guitar lines and wafting layers of keyboard. Simon Scott’s snare snaps echo out in all directions, and the low end just rumbles somewhere under all the gauze. Halstead’s seems to keep saying “give me your heart,” but the words, awash in effects, kind of melt away into the song. What’s not lost is the pining feeling of it, though, one Goswell echoes beautifully when she chimes in. It’s easy to see this all as a continuation of the band’s old records, and to start dropping terms like “dream-pop” and “shoegaze.” But there’s a new kind of pulse to these songs. Scott’s drumming is crisp and dynamic here, pulling the song ahead rather than pushing it slowly forward like he did (beautifully) on Souvlaki.
The propulsion of these songs is what makes them so thrilling to hear, and what makes the band’s careful layering feel of the moment, even timeless, rather than a call back to past success. The first half of the record bursts open with a set of charged up pop tunes. “Star Roving” grinds and churns with slashing guitars, hard-thumping drums, and Halstead’s vocals layered so much they sound like some astral choir. “Don’t Know Why” gives Scott’s quickfire percussion top billing, popping holes through the shimmering guitars that Rachel Goswell’s voice seeps through beautifully. If the soaring layers in the chorus aren’t a surprise, the way they can shift from the towering keys here back into the sharp edge of the verses is as dynamic a move as the band has ever made on record. “Sugar for the Pill” starts in the kind of dark space that recalls Pygmalion, but it’s the rhythm section — the bass especially, here more than anywhere else on Slowdive — that carries the day. It’s also the song that reveals a tighter pop sensibility in Halstead’s writing here. If Pygmalion found him isolated and exploring texture, Slowdive has him back as a proper frontman for a band, writing songs with his band, but pushing them into some seriously hooky, striking territory.
In fact, this might be the most Slowdive has sounded like, well, a band on record. While there’s certainly plenty of post-recording treatment done here, this feels like players fleshing out songs on their instruments, rather than using the studio itself as an instrument. Maybe it’s because the band came back to the stage first, but if the group’s first run invited that “dream” word all the time, these textures feel much more grounded on terra firma, even as they soar. Plus, Slowdive reminds us that these players can strip down as much as they can pile the sounds up on one another. “Everyone Knows” is a brilliant piece of power-pop, thick and joyous with treated guitars and sweeping synths, but it works mostly because it shifts into the solitary notes and stripped-bare space that begins “No Longer Making Time.”
Slowdive, for all its immediacy, still wants to linger, and closer “Falling Ashes” is a perfect mood piece to end the record. The song’s eight minutes focus mostly on clear, cyclical piano runs, faintly shadowed by atmospherics, and when Halstead keeps repeating “thinking about love” you get buried one more time in the headspace of the record, an album about losing yourself in feeling rather than intellectualizing or shaping or articulating it. The piano notes ring out into space quiet, strong, melding with the soft fuzz around it. Slowdive fades out yet again at the end of this excellent new record, but with such a hooky, immediate, and yet complex record, let’s hope it’s not the final fade out.