[2 April 2008]
The sirens that rumble in the opener of Twenty One, the sophomore album from Eel Pie Islanders Mystery Jets, serve as more than alarms that signal the start of the album. They hint at an ongoing change within the band.
Last year, Henry Harrison, lead singer Blaine’s father, stopped doing live performances indefinitely. He was largely influential on their debut Making Dens, sculpting the band’s sound and writing the majority of their songs. For Twenty One, though, his influence has dwindled significantly, and the resulting divergent path of the Jet’s newest album becomes apparent after listening to even the first few songs.
This time around, Mystery Jets have drawn from ‘80s post-punk to create a more pop-oriented record than their debut. There are no “Zootime” growlers here. In fact, with Blaine’s distinctive, emotive vocals and the band’s bizarre and complex instrumentals, this new sound could be described in part as a combination of The Cure and Tears for Fears. Still, it is only within the context of the band that their sound fluctuates – they are still, quite uniquely, Mystery Jets.
Lead single “Young Love” is the best example of such dramatic change of sound. The band pulls it off with seeming ease, weaving a quaint boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl tale inside a dazzling melody with help from Laura Marling’s enchanting vocals. If ever a tragedy was performed with a more perfectly radiant regretfulness, it wasn’t by much.
“Flakes” tells yet another a tragic story in shimmering layers of pop. It was released for free back in November as an unofficial single for the holiday season. Who would have thought lyrics like, “The trouble with dreams / they’re not what they seem / ‘cause when you’re awake / they fall through your fingers in flakes”, would be a vehicle for the perfect winter holiday song? But the lyrics are tucked inside a cascading doo-wop melody, and one can’t help but be compelled to sing along.
The ‘80s influence is most apparent in the two mid-album tracks,“Veiled in Gray” and “2 Doors Down”. “Veiled in Grey” is instantly likeable, with its introspective musings designed in a delightfully catchy yet intriguing arrangement. “2 Doors Down”, meanwhile, could be spliced into a Miami Vice episode with no one the wiser. Because of this, it will probably be a love-it-or-hate-it deal. Those who can’t get past the reams of camp ‘80s effects, including an indulgent sax solo, will hate it.
By the time “Umbrellahead” rolls around as the eighth track, the new sound is so ingrained that this song sounds a bit out of place. The oldest of Twenty One‘s tracks, it would have fit in better with Making Dens, and, in fact, last year featured on the band’s American debut, Zootime. Still, it’s tough to argue against the inclusion of such a brilliant song.
“2 Doors Down” is probably the album’s weakest track, simply because it will be the most divisive, but none of the songs are true missteps. DJ-turned-producer Erol Alkan gets the credit for whittling a pack of potential tracks into a catchy and cohesive album. His influence is also obvious in the dance beats (nowhere to be found on Making Dens/Zootime) and ‘80s embellishments. The production work overall is very warm and inviting. That, along with the focus on pop melodies and dance beats, will likely make this album appeal to a wider cross-section of fans than the less digestible Making Dens.
Comparatively, this offering is less world-weary and lyrically eloquent than its predecessor. It is more optimistic, playful, and polished. Where Making Dens was more principally a product of its Eel Pie Island origins, Twenty One is more intimate, and yet, because of this, universal to a specific age group. It isn’t called Twenty One for kicks, after all.
Henry Harrison’s diminished presence in the band, and the four twentysomethings’ subsequent step up in influence and responsibility, has shaped a curious circumstance. Twenty One almost feels like the debut and Making Dens like the sophomore follow-up. Reinventions of sound are always interesting to observe, and while this isn’t a total reinvention, it is most definitely a mutation.
In that sense, then, Twenty One is the perfect name for this album on more than one level. Identities are still being shaped during the first half of most people’s 20s. Blaine, William, Kapil, and Kai are no exception. Besides shaping their own identities, they are simultaneously shaping Mystery Jets. And Mystery Jets is in turn shaping them. Put simply, these entities cannot exist exclusive to one another. And that’s what makes this progression so intriguing. I can’t help but wonder how their next album will sound and what part, if any, Henry will play. But I’ll think more on that later. For now, I’ll pour a glass of iced tea and kick back to the breezy reflections of Twenty One.