In Brief: As gorgeous and otherworldly as Mew’s brand of “indie stadium rock” can be, + – doesn’t quite reach the heights of No More Stories… or And the Glass Handed Kites, which were more progressive in nature and felt like more of a deeply connected listening experience. This album is more akin to Frengers, in that it feels more like it’s simply 10 good tracks with a few “instant classic” highlights scattered among them.
I feel like I discovered a handful of really good bands right around the 2009-2010 timeframe that went on hiatus shortly thereafter. Mew was one of those bands, thrilling me with their third widely-released album, No More Stories… as it provided soothing lullaby-esque soundscapes and pure adrenaline rushes alike, often within the space of the same song. You could sort of call them a prog rock band, except that there wasn’t an obvious viewpoint or central theme that they seemed to be hammering home. They just had a knack for bringing together jarring musical contrasts in a way that felt fluid and continuous, like there was a bigger picture you could zoom out and marvel at when taking in a full album of theirs. Having nothing new to discover from the band over the intervening years (aside from lead singer Jonas Bjerre‘s more low-key but still excellent work on the Skyscraper soundtrack), I had no choice but to work backwards, first falling in love with the tragically dark but gloriously cathartic And the Glass Handed Kites and the relatively simpler record Frengers that probably first brought them to the attention of the larger indie rock world back in 2003. A new album seemed constantly on the horizon if Wikipedia was to be believed, but it wasn’t until they reacquainted themselves with their old pal Johan Wohlert, who had played bass on their first few albums before departing after Kites, that they seemed to pick up any momentum.
Finally, early this year, they announced the release of + –, the album with the humorously short title compared to their last few efforts at least, that almost immediately felt like a callback to those simpler days before anyone had ever even considered leaving the band. Frengers fans will probably appreciate this one the most, I’ll bet, but the many moods of Mew all seem to come full circle at some point on this album, from the effervescent and immediate indie-pop melodies that grace its opening tracks to the more intricate, meandering structures of its longest tracks, buried deeper within. Sometimes the immediate and the exploratory collide in the same song, giving way to a few tracks that for me at least, stood out among Mew’s best right away. They’re the kind of songs that have a lot going on, and yet hooked me in so immediately that they never seemed to wear out their welcome despite being so long and perhaps even somewhat repetitive. Jonas Bjerre’s twee lyrical sensibilities probably help; he mostly sings in falsetto and I have no idea what the heck he’s on about half the time, but you get the sense that he’s a man deeply in love with life itself, who wants to wring every drop of emotion out of the joys and tragedies he’s borne witness to over the years, so even if the lyrics make no sense, you can tell he’s been through some stuff and he’s come out resilient on the other end. Add the bright sounds of harps and keyboards and an incredibly tight rhythm section that sounds as giddy as ever at the prospect of having its bass player back, and you’ve got one heck of a delightful little album at your fingertips.
The downside to Mew trimming a little bit of the fat and returning to a relatively simpler sound is that + – doesn’t feel as “connected” as their other albums. It certainly flows beautifully. The pacing is smart, putting two of their all-time best songs right up front, mellowing slowly from there until the first side concludes in a moment of stunning grace, then picking things up again with another instant winner right at the beginning of Side B and delving into the more emotionally heavy stuff from there. It just doesn’t quite sustain the wonder I felt on other albums when one amazing song would careen right into the next with no sign of letting up, like Kites quite literally did with the trifecta of “Apocalypso”, “Special”, and “The Zookeeper’s Boy”, or Stories did more in more of an emotional sense with the late-album quadruple threat of “Hawaii”, “Vaccine”, “Tricks”, and “Sometimes Life Isn’t Easy”. The catharsis isn’t quite as strong on this one, because these songs don’t have that same sense of pulling me uncomfortably close to the brink of despair and then letting me feel the relief of a loving hand pulling me back at the last second. The mood swings just aren’t as wild here. That probably makes + – an easier album for newcomers to get into, though, so don’t be discouraged on my account. It’s a darn good album that will hopefully encourage you to go back and explore their even better ones.
I’m going to make a confession here. I ridicule a lot of pop songs for having lyrics that are inane or downright gibberish. Then I turn around and claim to fall head over heels for songs that do the very same thing, and just don’t happen to be blaring out of every shopping mall speaker in earshot. Taking the lyrics at face value, Mew’s comeback single would be one of those songs, with its schoolboy-crush lyrics offering us such wince-worthy musings as “I like you real silver-like” and “I want to be with a girl like she.” OUCH. Even accounting for English as a second language, that’s tough to defend. But wrap those lyrics in a remarkably durable song that starts off fluffy as a cloud with its gorgeous harp intro and its melody skipping along in triple meter, only to effortlessly settle into one of mew’s most stratospheric rock choruses, and the twee charm begins to reveal itself. The sheer beauty of the percussion gradually crystallizing around the swirling guitars is a wonder to behold, as the song establishes a more firm rhythmic anchor and goes… um, full speed ahead with it. (I’m not good with nautical metaphors, OK?) Six minutes of this seems to never get old, as it’s such a dynamic performance for the band, somehow twisting itself into new and intriguing shapes despite having four verses and repeating its chorus an awful lot – each time through seems to change up the rhythm or intensity of it in some way. I swear, it’s a magic trick.
I’d consider this the most immediate and aggressive track on the album – imagine a less-dark “Apocalypso”, or perhaps a “Repeaterbeater” jolted out of its offbeat stupor, and you get this masterpiece filled with Silas Jørgensen‘s tight, claustrophobic drums and Bo Madsen‘s pumped-up guitar riffs (with liberal use of the whammy bar, which I love). Jonas sings in an unusually low register at first, saving his falsetto for another killer chorus hook, and all is right with the world. I haven’t grasped much about the lyrics here, which are typically abstract for Mew, but seem to address two lovers at odds with the rest of the world. It’s just one of those songs that makes you want to pump your fist while you’re driving well over the speed limit. (Don’t actually do that, though. I’m just saying I understand the urge.)
3. The Night Believer
I’m not quite ready to mellow out at this point, but Mew still creates an agreeable atmosphere with this more relaxed, mid-tempo pop song, which is interesting for how its lead instrument seems to change every time I think I’ve got it nailed down – sometimes it’s driven by starry keyboards, sometimes acoustic guitar, sometimes piano… and of course Jonas’s voice brings us another feel-good, highly singable chorus. I may have had unrealistic expectations for this one since it boasts a guest vocal from Kimbra, an eclectic artist and vocalist in her own right, whose role here is bafflingly limited to a duet vocal in the second verse and mostly BGV’s for the rest of the song. it’s a nice surprise to hear how she comes in, but her voice is much more subdued and whispery than I’m used to, to the point where I wouldn’t guess it was her if I hadn’t seen the credit first. The song appears to be a conversation between a man who realizes he’s losing his grip on the woman he loves, and that woman as the glitz and glamour of Hollywood consumes her, but since Mew’s lyrics are so open-ended, your guess is as good as mine. Even the line that drops the title offers no tangible clues: “Bring the night believer the wrong keys”. Yeah, I got nothin’. The fact that it fades out as Jonas and Kimbra are trading off vocals doesn’t help – I’m a firm believer that a song should never be cut short while there are still new lyrics left to sing.
4. Making Friends
I’m getting a definite 70s feel from this one. Sort of a slow dance, but there’s kind of a sexy groove going on here too, which is new territory for Mew. It’s in some of these more airy, spacious songs that Johan Wohlert gtes to shine, and I love how his bass interlocks with the guitar as it emulates some sort of a funk/rock lick as heard through its own adorable, Danish dream-pop filter. The occasional, excited shouts of female backing vocals and the somewhat childlike lyrics (including the bizarre couplet “Don’t you dare/Take a bite of your hair” in the second verse, in case things weren’t surreal enough already) compliment the summery, Sunday afternoon sort of feel. I’m picturing a playground as I listen to this one… and a lot of people in it, all wearing bell-bottoms.
5. Clinging to a Bad Dream
This album feels like it’s got a lot more meat to it than the 10-song tracklisting would suggest, owing to how the front and back half both open and close with songs that exceed six minutes in length. This one stretches out to nearly seven, and in the process it feels like one song slowly bleeding into a very different one, which I mean in the most complimentary way possible, because Mew has a gift for morphing the structure of a song over time without it being too jarring. The bass line at the beginning of this one is proof positive that they’re stoked to have Johan back – it establishes an upbeat, syncopated rhythm, but also an aura of mystery, as this song’s melody goes to eerier places than you might imagine from this set up. Thye speedy guitar and bass groove hits some turbulence at the pre-chorus, where Jonas seems to be stuttering the lyrics and forcing the band to skip a beat here and there as he tries to articulate himself – “I know – I know – I know – it’s difficult, difficult – different – I know – I know.” Strangely enough, that turns out to be the most memorable hook of the song, overshadowing the actual chorus to the point where it feels like another verse. As the song progresses, you can hear it hinting at the emotional fragility of some of the tracks from Kites, but just as it reaches its apex, the stuttering guitar leads us gracefully into a very peaceful outro, as if the bad dream had suddenly ended and now the dreamer is awake in bed, breathing in and out steadily as he realizes he needs to let that imaginary realm go for good, calming his racing heartbeat and reminding himself it wasn’t real.
6. My Complications
It sure is a blast to hear a harp strumming in time with the guitar riff at the beginning of the song. The guitar sort of runs away with the song after that point, but it’s such a rapidfire succession of cool riffs and runs that I don’t mind at all. The rhythm section takes off running and it’s an all-out sprint for about six minutes. As upbeat and fun as this all is, the mood is deceiving because the lyrics are on the tragic side, circling back around to the themes of illness and aging that cropped up in the back half of No More Stories. The line “Now we cough, young Mary”, which is repeated in the song’s outro, even reminds me of the “Maria” who fell ill in “Vaccine”. Whether these songs are intended to be connected is anyone’s guess. Either way, this one’s an instant classic that will hopefully remain a fixture of their live shows for years to come.
7. Water Slides
As abstract and fanciful as Mew’s lyrics can sometimes be, every now and then there’s a line that slams me right back down to reality. The chorus of this song does exactly that, hinting at fears that a loved one might overdose or commit suicide or something like that, as Jonas pines, “For such a long time, I didn’t know if I’d find you/Say stop, made up, lying on the bathroom floor.” It sticks out like a sore thumb – in a good way, I might add – from a song that is otherwise concerned with wolves and feathers and dinosaurs. And it’s a shame that they don’t seem to do much with that terrifying admission of fear, leaving the rest of the chorus to simply blurt out “Ah ah ah ah” several times, peter out, and then repeat itself. I can’t tell you what a massive mood-killer their lyrical punt on this one was to me. I still think it’s a beautifully produced song, with its appropriately “watery” keyboards and its gentle bass groove. But repetition isn’t the band’s friend here when there’s clearly more of a story for that chorus to tell (and the verses may well be telling it, but the chorus is the only point that lifts the veil on all of the fairy tale language).
8. Interview the Girls
Sometimes I have a hard time relating to a Mew song because I can’t make out very many lyrics at all. On paper, this appears to be one of Jonas’s most transparent moments, as he sings of social anxiety leading up to a radio interview. he’s apparently going into it feeling some sort of adversity, like the interviewer just wants to make him look bad… and I don’t know who “the girls” are that get interviewed first, but perhaps they’re some other artists or celebrities who are still too young and innocent to have their guard up. I could listen to this one a hundred times and still not ascertain that the chorus was saying “Give your cruel ride to someone”, because the overlapping vocal parts are all popping out in bright colors and it seems like they wanted another chorus in the vein of “The Zookeeper’s Boy”, but the lack of clarity just kills it for me. It’s a passable pop song – something up-tempo where one might argue the album needed. But I don’t know, it feels sort of like Mew’s version of filler on a musical level.
Just looking at the tracklisting in iTunes or Spotify, you might be tempted to think Mew has bitten off way more than they can chew with the nearly 11-minute runtime of this song. When it starts off, the dark, solitary guitar notes echoing off into empty space, you might be tempted to think they’ve pulled a Sigur Rós and they’re going to spend a very long time building up to a euphoric conclusion. To that I’d say, yes and no. A good three-quarters of this song is deliberately slow and spacious, but there are moments of beauty and aggression scattered throughout, not quite bringing the walls down around them to epic ruins like “Louise Louisa” did, but it’s definitely in that same vein. What’s really interesting about this one is that you’ll think you’ve reached the climax two or three times before you actually do. That keeps a song fresh that could have otherwise been an interminable mope-fest. And did you notice the piano melody bubbling up underneath a few passages of the song? Somewhere between the seven and eight-minute mark, it just completely breaks out of the song’s slow tempo, as if a track from the studio sessions had accidentally been played back at high speed, and the band just goes with it, making the gorgeously upbeat coda at the end of the song one of the best surprises in their entire discography. They probably could have gotten away with labeling this as two separate, but conjoined tracks, but I’m glad they left it all together as a single entity. Unlike a lot of prog-inspired modern rock acts that attempt to throw curveballs over the course of long songs like these, the ending doesn’t come completely out of nowhere and the way they shift to that final section is giddy and graceful all at once. I bet the final act of this one would just kill in concert. The sense of anticipation hanging in the air leading up to it would be thick enough to cut with a machete.
10. Cross the River on Your Own
The album’s final track is a seven-and-a-half minute, piano-driven slow dance – a final goodbye of sorts to someone who can’t be accompanied into the afterlife by mere mortals. It’s touching, and Mew is surprisingly subdued on this one, keeping the tempo and melody consistent throughout and not pulling any of the change-ups we might have expected based on the other long songs on this record. It’s a bittersweet ending, as Jonas’s voice makes it clear that his farewell is still a fond one, but it’s one of those performances where you can almost hear the tears rolling down. Since it’s not as climactic as some of the other tracks, I’ll admit to losing patience with it at times, but it’s something different for Mew and I do appreciate that.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Night Believer $1
Making Friends $1
Clinging to a Bad Dream $1.25
My Complications $2
Water Slides $.75
Interview the Girls $.50
Cross the River on Your Own $1
Jonas Bjerre: Lead vocals, guitars
Bo Madsen: Guitars
Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen: Drums
Johan Wohlert: Bass
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