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Mystery Jets

Serotonin

(Rough Trade; US: 13 Jul 2010; UK: 5 Jul 2010)

Mystery Jets are the inheritors of Britpop. Serotonin is produced by Chris Thomas, whose career has spanned decades of British pop, working with bands like Pink Floyd, the Sex Pistols and Pulp. The album has a huge production to go along with that résumé, but the key to this album is melody. Mystery Jets write melodies so catchy that they sound like songs you’ve already heard—which is arguably the hallmark of every great pop song. If the song triggers a reminiscence that can’t quite be placed—although you may rattle off a few band names, they still don’t cover it all—this usually means something is working.


That said, transcendence isn’t necessarily always a good thing. It can lead to an unsettling ambiguity, and in the end, the pretty melodies might just be a bit too generic. Whichever way you cut it, though, Mystery Jets aren’t unique enough. If you place the band within a British rock context of blue-eyed soul, their songs make sense. Yet the sheen and purity of melody verges on the commercial, without the critical context of a band like the Style Council. In other words, there’s something cheesy going on here.


You can pinpoint the cheesiness in the lyrics. Mystery Jets do have a sense of humor about themselves. This is clear at the very least by the silly album cover: a glossy magazine style photo of the band in a turquoise tiled bathroom, doing bathroom things. The glossiness translates to the album; the humor doesn’t. The lyrics stick to the familiar range of platitudes and clichés that characterize most love songs, without any notable tinge of irony to save them. The first song, “Alice Springs”, repeats: “Better to have loved and lost / than to have lived and never loved anyone”. On “Lady Grey”, Blaine Harrison sings “And if life gives you lemons / you make lemonade”. Lyrics are almost never enough to make me dislike an album, but some of these do make me want to groan.


The main development Mystery Jets have made on their third album is a bigger, more majestic sound, surely aided by Thomas’ production. The edgy post-punk qualities are smoothed out into a crystalline surface sheen. All of the songs on the album still have a dance sensibility, but beyond this, there is something too imperial. The group gets to its incredibly poppy and polished sound through an interesting formula. You can make out ‘70s British prog influences—without any weirdness. But the band that continually came into my mind as I listened to this release was the Manic Street Preachers. There’s the same grandiosity and crisp quality, though Mystery Jets have no politics to give them an edge. The band falls prey to the same flaw: flawlessness. Just like with the Manics, I can’t help but feel uneasy listening to this.


Mystery Jets are good. And they aren’t at all “adult contemporary”. In fact, I like this album, albeit in a somewhat guilty way. But if they are emblematic of the new wave of Britpop—inheritors of the stadium sound of Oasis—then I’m worried that Britpop is running on empty. No quirks, like the album cover parades, make it into the music (and nowadays, that’s not enough to make a band interesting, is it?). With the lyrical blandness and smooth touch of the music, one might be tempted to think the band is parodying this kind of pop mentality, if the music wasn’t so clearly in earnest (unlike the fun quality their earlier songs have).


To get back to the music, the problem is that nothing too interesting seems to happen beyond the melody. This is a sure sign of overreaching for commercial success. No doubt, “Flash a Hungry Smile” has a nice whistle part. But it’s a rare moment where any of the instrumentation beyond the vocals sticks out for itself. Keys, guitars, drums, and bass are just vehicles for the vocals, and that makes Mystery Jets seem less like a band and more like a backing group for a lead singer. Starting with beautiful melodies, Mystery Jets scale up where they should scale down. What results is a bloated feeling, but not in that over-the-top prog way that has a certain charm.


The pure prettiness of the melodies tends to blur the songs together into one super-catchy super-song; gone is the texture, the songs are polished to transparency. The album is good but lacking something central to make it stick out in any way: everything is rounded off. By definition, serotonin is a “chemical messenger” that helps regulate patterns of sleep. Likewise, Mystery Jets’ Serotonin might put you to sleep—but don’t worry: it would be a peaceful, majestic, and dreamy sleep.

Rating:

Scott writes, plays music, and teaches literature in Amherst, Massachusetts.


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