The Scottish group the Pastels is an integral piece of the indie-pop puzzle, influencing UK and American bands of the last couple decades, including some of the last few years. But they have always done a lot of different things at once, been more eclectic than their devotees perhaps. That was true from their start in the early ‘80s. They put cute melodies into rough, noisy detours. They have absolutely classic pop songs; “Nothing to Be Done”, for example, is eternal. But each of their albums has true surprises and moments of warped energy.
Over time, the Pastels stretched their music out greatly; smoothed it over and prettied it up; turned their jagged non-conformist anthems into landscapes. Their 2003 instrumental soundtrack to the film The Last Great Wilderness and their 2009 collaborative LP with Japan’s Tenniscoats, Two Sunsets, found them playing sun-dappled, delicately arranged atmospheric pop music; songs for daydreamers.
Slow Summits, their fifth proper (non-soundtrack, non-remix, non-collaboration) LP in 30 years, follows up on that sound and look, keeping it as the dominant style, while leaning a tiny bit more on rock ‘n’ roll form (in a Left Banke/Belle & Sebastian way, if those count as “rock”).
The hushed opening track “Secret Music” is a melancholy but open-eyed walk through rain-soaked streets, listening to the colors of the traffic, sky and neon signs. “Can you hear secret music / secret lights / secret nights”, the chorus goes. The song is directed towards someone who is absent, who the protagonist wishes was there. Yet the idea of “secret music” has power beyond the song’s connection to its environment, and the feelings held therein. The Pastels generate the feeling among listeners that we share a special bond with the band, that they are ours.
Much of the album builds on this environmental angle and the in-your-head/intimacy of their approach. Songs connect places with people, smacking of secret rendezvous, whispers, romantic moments in memorable settings. There’s a song set amidst “Summer Rain”, and one about the colors of night-time (“Don’t Wait”). “Kicking Leaves” paints quite an evocative picture, as the singer imagines various romantic scenes – “We’re standing still / at the head of a hill / won’t you kiss me?” In “The Wrong Light”, lights and shadows are entwined with past experiences, with memories and the emotions related to them. These are personified memorably – “we are shadows of the night / we are missed / but we exist.” It’s a reminder again of the connection between their songs and cinema. At the very least they seem interested these days in the power of light, and related trickery.
The first single “Check My Heart” is the going-out-for-the-night, dressed-up face of all these inward feelings; its dance club and radio single, as it were. It’s a shy song, like them all, but unafraid to dance with its heart on its sleeve. There’s a real romantic optimism there, too, and in the album overall. The last track “Chin Up” rides the album out on such a note, with flutes and fingersnaps. Optimism here sounds pretty lonely though, too, even when she’s entreating us to have energy, be kind and come to the dance. Throughout Slow Summits beauty and brightness are paired with someone’s absence. There’s a perpetual disappointment held not far from the surface, but they sound like they’ve come to certain terms with it.