The synth-loving indie pop duo celebrates its tenth anniversary by crafting an album of pop songs about aging and mortality. It's about as much fun as one would expect.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the formation of British-based duo Monster Movie. In recognition of that milestone, Monster Movie masterminds Christian Savill and Sean Hewson have seen fit to celebrate (so to speak) the occasion by releasing Everyone Is a Ghost, ten tracks of consistently melancholy indie-synthpop. Which is kind of the band’s deal, to be fair, but don’t you think they’d at least be a bit more upbeat about it this time around? Well, a quick glance at the duo’s latest press photos will reveal inklings of muted contentment, and even a smile or two. If anything, it’s an indication that they are pleased that after all these years they’ve carved themselves a comfortable niche in the rather specialist field of “synthy indie pop for miserablists”.
If you are new to the Monster Movie oeuvre yet are a fan of Christian Savill’s previous band Slowdive, don’t expect shoegaze-style swirling guitar tones here -- the closest Everyone Is a Ghost gets to that sound is via “Silver Knife” and the grinding noise pop distortion of “Bored Beyond Oblivion”. No, Monster Movie is all about electronic pop (or, more specifically, an indie rocker’s vision of what that should be), meaning that Everyone Is a Ghost is quixotically fixated on bridging the gap between ‘80s synthpop and late ‘60/early ’70 Bee Gees records. Despite the liberal intermingling of keyboards and acoustic sounds throughout the record, the band doesn’t really try to mesh the two ends of the spectrum together on each song, instead tilting towards a given extreme depending on the track. This either/or approach means that on the title cut and especially “Fall”, the stark, piercing synth tones recall Pet Shop Boys at their most pensive, while the acoustic-backed harmonies of “How the Dead Live” would slot in solidly into the discography of the Brothers Gibb. At its most integrated, Everyone Is a Ghost invokes the early work of The The, a third-tier cult synthpop group that all too often diluted its melodic punch with post-punk ponderousness.
That tendency is a flaw that Monster Movie suffers from as well. One thing is clear from the outset: despite Savill and Hewson’s pop inclinations, listening to Everyone Is a Ghost all the way through is a bit of a chore. The album is full of pop aspirations that routinely aren’t potent enough to overcome leaden arrangements that verge on the tedious. Monster Movie seems to have allowed the dour subject matter to afflict the music, resulting in a plodding feel that pervades the record. In spite of the plentiful hooks, the album is as much fun as attending a wake.
However, Everyone Is a Ghost isn’t a lost cause. The key to fully appreciating what the album has to offer is to hone in on those ‘70s-indebted vocals in order to latch onto Savill and Hewson’s affecting ruminations on death and sadness. It’s hard to deny the sighing harmonies of “Down Down Down” or the arching phrasing of “In the Morning” in the first place, but once you let the words sink in, it becomes apparent that the album pretty much is a wake, full of bittersweet reflection, misty-eyed longing, and calls for emotional support. Yes, Everyone Is a Ghost is downer listening (given the album’s title, it’s not surprising to find death-related imagery omnipresent), but in that context, it works very well.
Still, Everyone Is a Ghost isn’t the sort of album you throw on during a leisurely afternoon. Monster Movie is genuinely trying to craft music that suits its conception of deft pop music, but the pair can’t seem to overcome its tendency to strip the fun out of it. Sure, aging and mortality aren’t the most uplifting lyrical subjects in the world, which to its credit, the duo always attempts to balance out with sing-along melodies. Yet consider that even Depeche Mode at its gloomiest knew how to arrange a dynamic track. After ten years, Monster Movie proves itself content to trade in somber synthpop, but I can’t shake the feeling that by indulging in their own pop fascinations and inspirations, Savill and Hewson are keeping themselves from developing the skills to match their influences.