[23 June 2014]
PopMatters Music Editor - Canada
“This is not the first time we’ve seen change / Starting fresh and rearrange,” goes a lyric on the latest from Iceland’s GusGus, and it’s an apt summation of the group’s sound. A lot has changed since their 1997 major label debut Polydistortion. Gone are the spiky keyboards and harsh electronics from some of the songs on that album in favour of a more streamlined sound. Sure, there are still garish touches to be found on Mexico, such as the title track, which is the album’s sole instrumental. But, if anything, this record plays it straight, copping influences from ‘80s synthpop, UK garage and ‘90s techno. And it may be all the better for it, as Mexico feels much more like an actual album than material from the bands halcyon days of some nearly 20 years ago. The songs are expansive as only one song on this nine-song affair clocks in at less than five minutes. So it can be said that Mexico has the utility of working as an extended club mix in some respects. And, overall, it works.
Opener “Obnoxiously Sexual” might be the most overt aspect of the synthpop flourishes. In some ways, the song feels like it could be classic Pet Shop Boys, if only the Pet Shop Boys had soulful male vocals leading the way. There’s an added element, too. Brash horns jump out of the song at one point, along with diving strings, and these flourishes enhance the track, making it seem more sophisticated than being a simple retread of what’s come before in the pop music landscape. It’s almost disco, just without the gaudiness. There’s ambition to be had in these opening moments, and that sets the tone for what remains. “Another Life” with its reliance on the hi-hat, bouncy keyboards and distorted vocals, at least initially, is perhaps the most overt cop to UK garage, especially when female singing kicks in. But, again, there are string accompaniments, and GusGus is set about making their own mark on this classic sound, rather than merely recycling what has come before. So, right from the get go, GusGus has come charging out of the gate and making its own version of a new signature style of music.
So, if anything, Mexico is a trip, not only into the past, but into foreign locales where the temperature might be more of a simmer and you can lounge by the pool with a drink in hand. “Sustain” brings that level of heat to the fore with its sharp keyboards that begin to recall the sonics of Polydistortion to some degree. However, as the chorus goes, “We won’t sustain,” and this leads one to believe that this is a manifesto of where the group wants to go musically. As the keyboards build to a sharp crescendo and wash over the listener, you realize how much of an update to the songwriting this is. Whereas once they would rip and tear apart at your eardrums, here, they almost create the sensation of ocean waves crashing down upon the listener. The group also references the past on “Crossfade”: “There used to be nothing / Nothing but boys / Some unchained distortion / That truly annoyed.” You have to wonder if GusGus is busy on Mexico running from what came in their backcatalog. “Airwaves”, meanwhile, percolates on a lithe keyboard groove that feels muted, and it’s this subtlety that makes the song more than just your typical club banger. Mexico, in many respects, is a mixer’s album with the right elements tweaked and adjusted to the exactly perfect levels.
In fact, Mexico feels wall-to-wall something of importance, and it isn’t until you get to the very end that you encounter what could be filler. The seemingly tacked on ballad “This Is What You Get When You Mess With Love” doesn’t seem to fit in too well with what came before. In fact, the latter half of the record isn’t quite as memorable as its front portion, which is a bit of a disappointment, that the group couldn’t sustain momentum. However, there are charms, from the very techno-sounding “God-Appreciation”, which sounds like it could have come straight out of a ‘90s club night, and the aforementioned title track, with its sliced and diced rhythms and distorted keyboards, which is the most overt nod to the spikiness of the group’s initial output.
Overall, Mexico is an interesting juxtaposition and enigma. As much as the fact that the ever rotating lineup of the group wants to recall the sounds of the past, they are often busy running from them, too, at least lyrically. Mexico wants to show us how GusGus has changed, has matured, has moved on, while still clinging to things that seem distant and remote. That paradox is at the heart of the album, and that’s what makes it so winning and wonderful to hear. Mexico is a real puzzle, and a showcase for those behind the mixing desk, and within its contradictions is a dance record you can embrace as much as move your feet to. It’s funky, it’s debonair, and it’s overall something that rewards repeat listens to isolate elements and notice the flourishes of colour that GusGus brings to its sound. Mexico, it turns out, is a place you definitely want to visit, and maybe, just maybe, you might want to stay there.