Mew – Visuals: They could have made it; I believe they faded.

2017_Mew_VisualsArtist: Mew
Album: Visuals
Year: 2017
Grade: B-

In Brief: Mew’s keyboard-heavy indie rock sound will always inspire mental flights of fancy, and I appreciate the occasional heavier moments, too. But this record feels less “prog” than their last few, and I don’t think the songwriting is as intriguing, which means a lot of it is pleasant but forgettable.


I’m never sure whether to be overjoyed or suspicious when a band whose previous album I enjoyed releases another one fairly quickly after it. I figure two to three years is a normal “album cycle”. Anything more than that, and I assume a band’s either on a deliberate hiatus, or perhaps they’re having trouble coming up with ideas or otherwise getting the new material together. Anything less than that, and it can seem like a hurried attempt to put an underperforming album in behind them. Of course there are exceptions – bands that infamously take a long time to painstakingly craft every single one of their records, and bands that deliberately release more than one closely together because there is some thematic connection between the two and they didn’t want to overwhelm fans with a double album all at once. Sometimes it depends on the genre, too.

I bring this up because Mew, the Danish indie rock band with mild delusions of grandeur whose music I fell in love with in the late 2000s, took about a six-year hiatus between records just as I was really getting into them. 2009’s No More Stories… had already come out four years following their previous album, 2005’s And the Glass Handed Kites, and then we didn’t get + – until mid-2015. While it didn’t quite have the same ambitious scope as those earlier albums, there was still a good mix of highly melodic, accessible, ethereal pop/rock tunes on that one amidst the longer, more suit-like songs. I hadn’t had enough time to really wear that one out like I did with No More Stories…, when suddenly, out of the blue in spring 2017, they dropped another new record, Visuals. Right away I noticed that it was the shortest record they’d released since before their major-label debut Frengers. And I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Not to say that I judge this band solely by the length of their songs (as a great many of my favorites by Mew fall into the 3-4 minute “potential single if the radio actually played imported indie rock” zone), but it just seemed like a bad omen for this one to be arriving so soon and have comparatively less content than I was used to. Was the band making a conscious effort to streamline their sound. If so, would the material be memorable enough that I wouldn’t mind a memorable groove or chorus being snatched away from me sooner than I was used to? It’s possible that I think about these things too hard, but well, that was my apprehension going into Visuals.

As it turns out, the bigger change that I somehow wasn’t even aware of was that guitarist Bo Madsen had left the band shortly after + – was completed, leaving lead singer and keyboardist Jonas Bjerre to cover guitar duties in the studio. That doesn’t lead to an album entirely bereft of guitar, but it does feel like the keyboards dominate more on this record. A lot of these songs have a sort of glittery glow to them, which wasn’t exactly an unfamiliar element on their past albums, but this is probably the Mew album that goes down easiest for listeners unfamiliar with their work. Every other record of theirs had at least a few songs that challenged my expectations (or in Kites‘ case, wildly different sections within the individual songs that made it difficult to recall which track I was even listening to without looking), while Visuals seems to go down remarkably – almost alarmingly – easy. There are a few unorthodox song structures that stand out here and there, some fun bits of unexpected instrumentation, and maybe a few moments where a guitar riff or drum cadence stands out more than the vocals or keyboards. But as a whole, I can’t pick out a song that I’d be absolutely dying to hear if I were to ever see the band live, the way I could immediately with tracks like “Satellites”, “Hawaii”, or “The Zookeeper’s Boy” on past albums. Plenty of catchy stuff here, along with a few gently floating ballads that don’t really grab my attention, and honestly there’s nothing bad on this record. It just doesn’t seem to aim for greatness as much as their past records did.

And then of course there are the lyrics, which in keeping with Bjerre’s usual songwriting style, are mostly esoteric and occasionally downright goofy. I’m not sure if it’s an English-as-a-second language thing, or just a personal preference to drop oddly specific references into songs that otherwise convey a pretty universal sense of melancholy, but there seem to be quite a few “Did he just sing what I thought he sang?” moments here that don’t make a whole lot more sense to me when I check the actual lyrics. On past records, I could strongly feel the weight of a song even if I didn’t totally understand the lyrics. But Visuals just doesn’t carry the as much of that emotional weight for me. It’s a fun album to listen to, and occasionally it does something cartoonishly out of left field. But man, what I wouldn’t give to have the band show me to the brink of despair like they did with songs like “Louise Louisa”, “Sometimes Life Isn’t Easy”, or “Rows”, making the joy and solace that much more rewarding if and when it re-emerges afterwards. During the few moments where I start to get “the feels” on this album, it seems like we’re done with that and on to some other song before I can really let it sink in. New Mew is still better than no Mew, of course, and I can’t necessarily say the band is repeating itself. Still, unless I was recommending the band to someone with too little patience for some of their longer songs, Visuals isn’t the place where I’d want a new fan to start.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Nothingness and No Regrets
“Oh no, are they opening with a ballad?” I really should have known better than to think that – or, for that matter, to consider it a bad thing – when I first heard the fluffy keyboards and Jonas’s chirpy vocals at the beginning of this song. I can’t help it; I’m used to Mew opening their records with something that is either instantly catchy (“Am I Wry? No”, “Satellites”) or confoundingly strange (“Circuitry of the Wolf”, “New Terrain”). This track makes you wait a bit before eventually falling into the “catchy” category, going through a full verse and chorus sounding like it may as well be something from Jonas’s solo album before bringing in the rest of the band. But when they do, it’s pure bliss in exactly the way I’d expect Mew to bring it. Silas Jørgensen‘s drum fills immediately fill the song with pure kinetic energy, and the great part is that none of this seems jarring, as the tempo, melody or mood of the song hasn’t changed. They’re merely filling in the blanks, and I have to say that the song’s better off for taking the time to build up anticipation in the listener. The lyrics do a pretty good job of contrasting nihilistic despair with the song’s incessantly upbeat musical approach, which is also something I’ve come to count on Mew for. “In our polyester death/There is nothingness and no regrets” is a hopelessly emo sentiment if I’ve ever heard one. It gets a bit bogged down in its strange musing about “What’s in a number?” leading into the chorus, but when it gets there, the sense of loss and regret felt over some sort of an action not taken is palpable: “We could have made it/I believe we faded/And soon the world will too.”
Grade: A-

2. The Wake of Your Life
The drum fills at the beginning of this song are even more intense and glorious than the last song. They’re definitely the most notable thing about it, though I do also enjoy the smooth but up-tempo pacing of it and the starry keyboard melodies. It serves a function similar to “Witness” on their previous album, of keeping the momentum up after a strong opening track, though since the band is minus one guitarist now, they’re doing it in a way that draws more attention to the keyboards and percussion than to the guitar riffs. I think this is my favorite song on the album, though if you asked me to recall what its chorus was saying, I honestly couldn’t bring it to mind as easily as some of the other songs on this record. It’s got a catchy pre-chorus that damn near overshadows its actual chorus, and overall I think what’s going on instrumentally is way more interesting than whatever’s being sung. No disrespect to Jonas, who is doing a great job bouncing between the lower and higher ends of his vocal range to match the intensity of different parts of the song. But the song could be full of nonsense lyrics or completely instrumental and it wouldn’t really have much of an effect on my overall enjoyment of it.
Grade: A-

3. Candy Pieces All Smeared Out
The band made their boldest choice on this song, by blasting the listener with an uncharacteristically heavy and dirty guitar riff right at the beginning, like some sort of a demented fanfare for a deranged king that gleefully stomps all over his subjects. It’s hilariously weird, and sort of a callback to the days of And the Glass Handed Kites, when the contrast between light and heavy was often quite apparent within a single song. There’s also a bit of tension between the syncopated guitars and the otherwise straightforward, 4/4 beat that reminds me of how much “Introducing Palace Players” threw me off when I first listed to No More Stories. This is all great fun, though it means that the band drops the biggest surprise at the beginning of the song, which means that even though they go back and repeat the riff a few times further in, the song never really reaches a peak of intensity higher than its first few seconds. The lyrics seem to be about wanting a carefree, spontaneous existence, enjoyed with someone you love, which seems to flip the dissonance between lyrics and music heard in “Nothingness and No Regrets” on its head, because that was a happy-sounding song with rather sad lyrics, and this song is the reverse, for the most part. The first of many “did I hear that right?” moments comes in the bridge when Jonas sings, “Surely you see there, are two versions of me/One Googles itself and the other one lives free.” I get that he’s trying to illustrate the tension about being a well-known musician up on a stage and being all concerned about what the general public thinks of you, and just being a normal person without all the pressure of being a celebrity. But jeez, name-dropping the world’s most well-known search engine sure is an awkward way to phrase it, and Mew doesn’t normally drop ironic product placement references into their song lyrics, strange as they tend to be.
Grade: A-

4. In a Better Place
So you may be wondering at this point how I can be so lukewarm on this album if I’ve given its first three songs high marks. It’s partially because of its front-loaded nature – nothing past this point is quite as memorable as that opening trio. This song, which kicks off with another punchy drum beat and some ethereal synths, is actually one of the album’s singles, but to me it doesn’t have nearly as strong of a hook as it should. I remember it more for its overall vibe and texture than for anything is does melodically or anything that the lyrics have to say. It turns out that the lyrics have some interesting things to say about death, and wondering what’s on the other side, perhaps if it will bring us to a place where we can be all the things we ever dreamed or imagine. As with a lot of the lyrics on this record, a well-meaning sentiment that starts out with universal appeal gets bogged down in odd details: “And what are you dressed as? I’m a race car, see?/I’ll get us there fast/Until death occurs, better hope this will last/We drove through the night/And hey, I was sad it passed/Eight shady stations played us at last.” What were we talking about again? The word salad nature of these lyrics only works when the song itself is weirder and more adventurous. This one’s enjoyable, but it doesn’t really have much beyond vaguely upbeat prettiness to offer. Also, I could do without the soft drum outro that trails off for a bit after the main body of the song has ended – it gives the false promise of something interesting happening after a false ending, which never actually happens.
Grade: B

5. Ay Ay Ay
This song definitely stands out, both for its music and its lyrics, which take a moodier turn on both counts. The guitar – even though it’s candy-coated enough that it’s close to sounding like a keyboard – leads off with a syncopated melody that pulls the listener into the odd, shifting rhythm of the song,  one of the few on the album that isn’t locked in 4/4 all the way through. Johan Wohlert‘s bass really stands out on this one, interlocking with the guitars and drums as the sinewy connecting tissue of the trio’s performance. Jonas’s lyrics are strange as usual, but they seem to have more bite to them this time around. Try the line “I wanna waste our nights, too/To sell these ketamines” on for size, or the chorus’s strange observation that “Your parents are legal/Your parents are lethal.” Is it some sort of a subversive political statement on drug culture, or euthanasia, or clashing cultural attitudes concerning immigration? This is one of those songs that I want to figure out even though I’m not entirely sure I ever will. It makes a case for itself being more than just word salad. And yet… they titled it after a rather weak backing vocal that barely registers during the verse. That seems like a misstep, as does wrapping the song up all neat and tidy after just over three and a half minute. This is a composition that feels like it yearns to break out of the confines of a radio-friendly song length and open up into a strange and otherworldly instrumental break or morph into something completely different at around the four minute mark. I can’t help but feel like on a previous Mew album, it would have done exactly that.
Grade: B+

6. Learn Our Crystals
“A wire! Oh watch out!” Those are apparently the opening lyrics to this song, which would be an intriguing way to start things off if Jonas didn’t enunciate it like it were just, cute, wordless vocalization. I find myself wanting to tune out almost right away due to the lackluster way that this song begins. Ironically, this is the only song on the album that breaks the five-minute mark, and to its credit, it never feels unnecessarily long. But it just never seems to coalesce into the sort of swift-moving epic that “Satellites” and “My Complications” were on the last album. It’s got some interesting percussion bits and segments of memorable melodies here and there, but the magic comes in fits and starts, as if this song were a junk drawer of different ideas for song hooks that didn’t all belong together. I like the marching snare drums as the line “Even when you were right, you were wrong” kicks in, as well as the blurting horns adding a little bit of color to the chorus. But that chorus… yikes. “Show me what life can be, entrust the key.” That and the title give the song a weird new-age/self-help book sort of vibe that I can never fully shake off. It’s trying to say something profound, but it can’t seem to make it past vaguely affirming platitudes.
Grade: C+

7. Twist Quest
Now if you’re going to up the ante on word salad lyrics, you might as well do something musically interesting in the process. The syncopated acoustic guitars and bass-heavy drum programming are certainly an unusual way to kick this one off, making me not mind that the abrupt snippets of ideas passing as lyrics here may as well be complete gibberish. I mean, can you make any headway with this? “Hold on/Two halves past and Colorado/Every night it’s five/You hold on/Terrified what’s gonna happen/Try it again twelve times.” Yeah, I didn’t think so. The chorus fares a little better with its gleeful hook, “I am a quiet light chaser”, but no matter how many times I read that in the liner notes, I still think Jonas is singing, “I am not quite like Jason.” (Enunciation isn’t this guy’s strong suit.) For some reason, my brain described this song as “tropical” when I first heard it, which I don’t think is a really accurate descriptor, but perhaps something about it vaguely reminded me of my all-time favorite Mew song, “Hawaii”, which isn’t really tropical either, but it brings back happy memories of a tropical place nonetheless. This one never quite kicks into high gear like the chorus of “Hawaii” did, so the comparison isn’t even fair beyond that tenuous mental connection I just made. But it’s a lot of fun. At one point Mew plays the “unironic saxophone solo coming right the heck out of nowhere” card like it’s going out of style, which it probably already has, but that’s the sort of thing that always makes me smile. They make a lot out of the weird, stilted flow of this song, ensuring that it’s memorably unique even within the discography of a band that’s already done a lot of weird things.
Grade: B+

8. Shoulders
There are really only three songs I’d consider “ballads” on this record. They’re all in the back half, and the first two of them are both rather short and rather boring. Is this song really only three minutes long? Due to its repetitive nature and not having much going for it other than some lifeless drum programming and some multi-tracked vocals laid on thick, it feels like it goes on a lot longer. The lines “Oh, won’t you take it off my shoulders now” and “It’s all in my head, is it?” are sung way too many times to give the chance to really delve into whatever it is that’s weighing on Jonas’s mind here. There’s a lone verse that has some promising turns of phrase: “The ghouls ain’t always friends/A silvery waterfall/And a screechy loud, carnivorous sound.” But like a number of songs on this album, it feels like an idea that was never fully developed. It’s like the band has become afraid to really confront their demons like they used to on some of their more fascinatingly dark songs, so now we get songs like this that tangentially hint at the darkness instead.
Grade: C

9. 85 Videos
What’s in a number, indeed? I have this weird pet peeves with songs that mention large numbers of things without really justifying either the specificity or the exaggeration inherent in those numbers. Multiples of ten, a hundred, or a thousand usually get a pass because they’re easily understood as hyperbole. Throw any other digits in there, and the listener has to ask, why that number? And so I spend much of this song wondering why there had to be eighty-five videos instead of eighty-four or eighty-six. And for that matter, what the heck these videos are about and why they make Jonas sad. The best I can figure given what the lyrics give me to work with is that he’s got an archive of random snippets of video on his phone, maybe that he took when he was dating someone he’s no longer with, and now they’re sad memories of something that couldn’t continue, and he can’t bear to watch them but also can’t bring himself to delete them. I’m being extremely generous with the interpretation, though. Now I’ve spent a lot of time on feeling like I don’t get the lyrics here, without even mentioning anything about the band’s performance, and here’s where what started as criticism is going to change quite abruptly to gushing praise. I have to say that the music here is top notch. Honestly, it’s one of the catchiest songs they’ve ever done – not one of the hardest hitting, but it’s easy to see why it was chosen as a single. Once again, you have those glittering synths right up front and an endearingly elastic drum beat to go with it. The song evokes memories of the 1980s, and I figure Mew’s musical soul must be trapped somewhere between there and the prog-rock excesses of the 70s. While there’s nothing excessive about this song or anything else on the album, I do feel that the band benefits from the type of format-breaking here that could have helped some of the other songs on Visuals. When they break out of the predictable 4/4 rhythm for the bridge (which actually comes before the second verse of the song and is then repeated later), these words “Angel, I found you in the drifting lights” end up feeling like the most exhilarating refrain on the entire record. I’m more than happy to hear it come back around, since it’s one of the record’s most inspired moments. This song feels like it could have been a lost track from No More Stories at times, and trust me, that’s high praise.
Grade: A-

10. Zanzibar
Come on, guys. You shouldn’t name a song after an exotic faraway place and then make music that doesn’t evoke some sort of an interesting journey. Mew got away with the aforementioned “Hawaii” because it was so darn much fun that I didn’t care if the lyrics or music seemed to have nothing to do with the place it was named after. But this sleepy little ellipse of a song, slowly drifting out to sea with no mooring? It could be named after any island in the world and it really wouldn’t change anything. Why a tropical island off the coast of Tanzania? I’m sure something heartbreaking happened there that inspired this little tone poem, but it’s not that interesting to listen to, not even when his voice perks up at the end as he wistfully compliments this person he’s drifting away from: “Tonight, you look beautiful”. As an interlude on a longer and more complex album, this might be OK, but this is a standard length 11-song album, so there’s really not much room for immaterial pieces like this that merely scribble an idea in the margins and leave it at that.
Grade: C-

11. Carry Me to Safety
The one ballad on the album that I think is worth remembering was, curiously enough, the first single released from it. They started from the end, as if to signal to Mew fans hungry for new music that they were more than happy to let us eat the dessert first. Personally, I feel like this one wanders a bit before it starts to find itself. The soft-as-a-pillow opening verse, once again all fluffy keyboards and high-pitched vocals, doesn’t do a whole lot to sell the lyrical content of the song, which seems to be about a man running some sort of a grueling race with onlookers cheering him on and some sort of an injury making every step painful. The lyrics “Give them hell until the bell” could not possibly sound more out of place, and normally I’m fine with the deliberate contrast because that’s just how Mew rolls. But here, the words are robbed of any real impact. That chorus, though. On, man, does that chorus melody really stick the landing. The chord progression alone could probably do all the heavy-lifting, but throw in Jonas’s “I’m so emotionally vulnerable I could burst out crying at any minute” vocal approach, and right away you’re right there with him, longing for that finish line to finally appear on the horizon so you can just collapse in the arms of everyone you ever loved and call it a hard-won victory. Unfortunately, a compelling chorus doesn’t make the song an unmitigated success. Like nearly everything else on Visuals, it wraps up too soon and too effortlessly. On past albums, a weepy yet beautiful ballad like this would take its sweet time to work up to a climax, and because the band gets into it almost right away here, the euphoria of finally achieving that victory doesn’t really feel as hard-won as it should. They throw everything they can at it to punctuate that this is the end of the album – including a blurting sax solo that shows up as suddenly as whatever that horn or siren thing was near the beginning of “Sometimes Life Isn’t Easy” on No More Stories. I keep referencing that album because that’s the one where Mew got the emotional peaks and valleys all right, despite the maze-like construction of some of the songs. Simplifying and smoothing things out like they did on this album, there just isn’t as much time to get wrapped up in the impressionistic hints of a story being told. I’m sure that this song will still play as an amazing highlight in their concerts – but they damn well better do some extended riffing on it if it’s going to have anywhere close to the effect that their longtime fans have come to expect.
Grade: B+

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Nothingness and No Regrets $1.50
The Wake of Your Life $1.50
Candy All Smeared Out $1.50
In a Better Place $1
Ay Ay Ay $1
Learn Our Crystals $.50
Twist Quest $1.25
Shoulders $.25
85 Videos $1.50
Zanzibar $0
Carry Me to Safety $1.25
TOTAL: $10.25

BAND MEMBERS:
Jonas Bjerre: Lead vocals, keyboards, guitars
Johan Wohlert: Bass, backing vocals
Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen: Drums, percussion

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
https://open.spotify.com/album/3oNtmmffPkYFDo6AhIrCil

MORE USEFUL LINKS:
http://www.mewsite.com/
https://www.facebook.com/mew/

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