One of the most memorable record reviews that I’ve ever read, something that has stuck with me all of these years, came in 1997. Ben Rayner, then of the Ottawa Sun and currently of the Toronto Star, reviewed the then-new album by Scottish band Primal Scream, Vanishing Point, and he said something to the effect that the album was so cool, that even tearing open the cellophane wrapping off the CD case went so far to heighten expectations for what was inside. That image of hearing the rip-and-crinkle of torn plastic sheathing to get to a shiny disc on the other side of the packaging resonated with me. One, it’s a swell mental picture of hipness. Two, it also can pretty much sum up the oeuvre of Primal Scream: just having their product in your possession is trendy without even having heard of a note of their music. They’ve been musical chameleons, but no matter what they do, and no matter that their album output can be frustratingly hit or miss, they remain awesome.
Regarding that chameleon-like nature, every Primal Scream album is a bit of a tabula rasa: the band generally wipes the slate clean and starts all over again. So you can jump from the acidly blissed out Screamadelica to the Stones-influenced Give Out But Don’t Give Up, from the dubby Vanishing Point to the keyboard dense club anthems of XTRMNTR. Primal Scream albums are like snowflakes in that they all are made from the same material, but no two seem exactly identical. More Light follows that tradition, and is, in essence, the group’s stab at creating big, bracing Britpop. Granted, Britpop you can still dance to (somewhat), but Britpop nonetheless. And More Light continues with the trend started on XTRMNTR with being overtly political – there’s even a rather timely reference to late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on “2013”. However, More Light feels like sloganeering as there’s stuff that’s worthy of sound bites – “Twenty-first century slaves, a peasant underclass!”, “Every generation buys the lies, just like the one before!” and “What happened to the voices of dissent / Getting rich, I guess?!” – but it doesn’t add up to too much. This is particularly since frontman Bobby Gillespie is oddly mixed very low at times, so much of what he’s saying comes out sounding like “blah, blah, blah”. Still, while we’re on the XTRMNTR tip, you could say that More Light is, in some ways, a natural continuation from that record, since that album not only ended with “Shoot Speed/Kill Light” but had Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine on it – he contributes some guitar to “2013” here. If the band wanted to shoot out the lights on XTRMNTR, More Light just turns them back on again.
If anything, More Light is a ballsy album. Its opening two tracks – “2013” and “River of Pain” – run a combined 16 minutes in length, almost exactly on the dot. So there are two audacious moves to be had there. One, creating a rather long introduction to a record might make it tough to really get into, though “2013” clips by feeling like it is half as long as its nine minutes, so infectious is its structure – a plus. Two, naming the first song after the year the album has been released in is particularly daring, considering that, give this record another six or seven months and it will seem past its expiry date until retro nostalgia for the 2010s rolls around in perhaps 20 years – notwithstanding the fact that the song is considered to be a spiritual cousin to the Stooges’ similarly dated “1969”. But Gillespie and company seem squarely focused on the state of things in the here and now, making More Light glaringly contemporary. And More Light is simply the sound of a band having a glorious time in the studio: when the band creates a chorus full of hooky Middle Eastern influences as they do on the seven-and-a-half minute “Relativity” (the album’s other really long track), and then shifts the action to an English pastoral jaunt, you just get carried along with the flow.
More Light is actually quite the musical adventure that straddles genres at times. Opener “2013” has a skronky saxophone part that feels rather “Love Is the Drug”-ish, while “Hit Void” is sort of an impression of the shoegazer scene. “Walking With the Beast” has a Delta blues-esque slither to it, while closer “It’s Alright, It’s OK” rolls up the band’s overt Stones influences and crosses them with soul and a gospel chorus. “Culturecide” has a funky ‘70s sense, and Gillespie’s vocal delivery here recalls his singing on XTRMNTR – much of it has the flow of early hip hop. “Goodbye Johnny” is a bit of a stab at bossa nova-flavoured rock ‘n’ roll, though it certainly might be a case of the band missing instead of hitting bullseye, though it does dovetail back into the earlier “River of Pain”, which boasts the opening line “Johnny’s home, drunk again”. Then there’s the teardrop-worthy “Tenement Kid”, which shuffles along quite contentedly, and “Elimination Blues” seems to reach back, title-wise, to a particular album now 13 years old in the band’s discography, and reaches even further back into the canon of British music by including Robert Plant on guest backing vocals, though, aside from some ghostly “uuuuoohs”, he’s also sadly buried in the busy production when he’s actually singing words. So More Light seems to be more of everything the band has ever summed up, but that could be a stylistic misstep of sorts: the disc can be overtly cinematic and panoramic in scope, which gives it a feeling that it is more important than it actually seems to be.
And if you did think the 13-track edition of More Light was perhaps a tad too much – slightly too much songs, slightly too much clutter in the instrumentation – just wait! There’s a “deluxe edition” that tacks on two additional songs to the first CD on the Japanese version, and adds six other songs on a bonus disc. Japanese bonus track “I Want You” sounds remarkably like the Troggs’ “Wild Thing”, so this is Primal Scream’s stab at ‘60s garage rock. And at nearly four minutes, it goes on far too long as it’s far too repetitive. “City Slang” is also cut in the similar vein: too long at five minutes, and it repeats itself. So you can pretty much ignore the Japanese pressing, unless you’re a Primal Scream completist. The bonus disc, however, is a bit different – not without its flaws, but still with timely (and maybe even timeless) material. “Nothing Is Real / Nothing Is Unreal” is a slick mirrorshades dance track that completely works, and even points an infatuation beyond the “Thatcher’s children” of “2013” to the next generation: “Take a look in your children’s eyes!” offers Gillespie. Too bad it was left off the proper album; it’s quite good. Then there’s the chicka-chicka-bow-bow funk slink of “Running Out of Time”, which is, while slightly filler-esque as its a bit directionless as a song, fun. And then there’s the rather unfortunately titled “Worm Tamer”, which has a nice country-ish swagger in its slide guitar riff. Finally, this bonus disc ties the album back to Screamadelica by bringing in producer Andrew Weatherall for a remix of “2013” – Weatherall, of course, created the band’s first big hit single in “Loaded”. The remix is intriguing in that it makes Primal Scream sound a little like the Cure with that liquid-y Robert Smith guitar style. As far as redone versions go, it’s not bad and certainly gives the song a radically different feel. Overall, the deluxe edition is a little lumpy, but it is worthwhile shilling out significant coin – Amazon.com is listing this version, as of early May 2013, at about double the price of the single disc, though note that this would be an imported version of the album (the domestic version may be cheaper when it sees the light of day) – if only to hear “Nothing Is Real / Nothing Is Unreal”. Still, you could live without it, and the world would keep turning towards 2014, I suppose.
In any event, More Light is not Primal Scream at their very best, but merely at their very good. The final song almost sums it up: “It’s Alright, It’s OK”, though the LP is a tick better than that. If you’re looking for the highs of a Screamadelica or an XTRMNTR, you may walk away from this album with a minor tear in your eye. However, this is hardly an over-the-top blunder as some of their records are said to be. (I’ve only collected the high points in their discography.) This is just Primal Scream being Primal Scream, changing up their sound and style to fit in with somewhat contemporary music. So while there’s nothing that’ll leave you gobsmacked like “Kowalski” did on Vanishing Point, More Light is still stuffed to the brim with a great deal of pleasant surprises and the odd slightly off-putting thing. That just might make this a bit of a slightly above average album for the band, as they usually straddle the poles of paltry to profound and leave very leeway in the middle, it seems. Still, this is quite something, and though Primal Scream is far from a perfect band, one thing remains with More Light: they’re still undeniably very, very cool. Even when you’re just attacking the shrink wrap (assuming you still buy those darn-fangled CD things) and haven’t even heard one note of the album.