You may remember Mew from their 2006 release, And the Glass Handed Kites, which featured a) an intelligent collection of poppy prog rock and b) one of the worst album covers ever. Ever. Really, see for yourself. Fortunately, for me and this review, the press copy of Mew’s latest — which, in an odd twist, features one of the worst (and longest) album titles ever — did not come with album art. More fortunate, however, is that it seems that Mew has picked up musically right where they left off on And the Glass Handed Kites.
No more stories / Are told today / I’m sorry / They washed away / No more stories / The world is grey / I’m tired / Let’s wash away is the album’s full title, and also the lyrics to a song on the album. Just printing the full title is most likely both a triumph and a joke to the band, whose members probably bet on whether a major label would actually release an album with such a long title (yay, Columbia!). Luckily for us online critics, review space doesn’t come at a premium.
NAITNTIL (I pronounce it “en-ate-until”), as I’ll refer to it from now until the end of time, features the same intelligent, big sound we’ve come to expect from Mew. Like its predecessors, NAITNTIL is filled with intricately-layered guitar, polyrhythmic drumming, sudden time changes, and sugary melodies that easily caramelize in your head. This time around, Mew have amped up the electronica and toned down the metal influence; where the heavily-distorted guitar obelisk once stood, there are now synthy condos. But, all in all, NAITNTIL serves as a tasty, toned-down aperitif to the critically-acclaimed And the Glass Handed Kites.
Like their album rock forbearers, Mew begin NAITNTIL with a moody — some might say superfluous — introductory build-up track aptly-titled “New Terrain” that, with fuzzy blurps and bleeps, foreshadows the electronic-y inflection of the songs to come. This slightly-clichéd introduction climaxes in a pastoral wash of synth noise and then fades into “Introducing Palace Players”, Mew’s best song to date. An explosive and infectious stew of prog-pop, the song features incendiary guitar riffage that would singe the beard hairs off of the most ardent ZZ Top fan. It’s a song that would sound at home on And the Glass Handed Kites.
“Beach”, the third track on NAITNTIL, is really the bell that signals a new Mew. Gone are the big guitar riffs and relentless drumming, replaced by a beautifully-arranged, smoky collection of keyboards and strings over a (shrinking) wall of reverbed guitar, melodic bass, and relatively subdued (yet intricate) drums. That may sound like a step in the wrong direction for a band that made its mark with big, distorted guitar riffs and pummeling drums. On the contrary, it’s a more mature Mew, with an ear towards dense harmony, subtle transitions, and, most importantly, sonic detail. In short, it’s a breath of fresh air in the increasingly simplistic (too simplistic?) world of rock, where the guitar-drums duo is the new standard.
For the most part, the remainder of NAITNTIL follows in the footsteps of “Beach”. “Silas the Magic Car” is a tender ballad that stutters, chimes, and echoes its way to a happy place. “Hawaii” and the fugue-like “Cartoons and Macramé Wounds” feature carefully-layered vocal harmonies that pirouette into your mind and refuse to leave. Big guitars make a brief appearance on “Vaccine” and “Repeaterbeater”, but only to accent sweet piano melodies and swinging percussive passages.
Mew’s major weakness is vocals. While lead singer Jonas Bjerre occasionally meanders into Brian Wilson territory, he doesn’t possess the pipes to inhabit the rock world. Wisely, Mew emphasize the instrumentation in their songs, using vocals — which are normally reverbed to within an inch of their sonic lives — like another guitar rather than a leading element.
The only real downside to NAITNTIL is Mew’s overuse of the interlude. Of the album’s 14 tracks, only nine are actual songs, with the remaining five serving as moody introductions or outros. These interludes come across as self-indulgent musical masturbation rather than some grand artistic statement.
Despite a few drawbacks, NAITNTIL is a triumph. It signals a more mature Mew, with more to say and more ways to say it. So does the success of NAITNTIL make us forget the fact that Mew are responsible for one of the worst album covers in rock history? Hell no.