Whether or not the music stacks up, Radlands should be regarded as a triumph. While the majority of their peers have fallen away in the battle against mainstream pop in recent years, Mystery Jets have fought on; from those early days as Eel Pie Island ragamuffin underdogs who counted a 57-year-old man in their number (Henry Harrison, vocalist Blaine Harrison’s father in fact, who left the band in 2007) to, later on, pop purveyors who tried, with a disappointing level of success, to conquer the charts with an ’80s inspired sound. Recently, as Radlands was being readied for release, bassist Kai Fish announced his departure. So the fact that Mystery Jets made it to album four is no mean feat. And, consequently, it makes Radlands a crucial point in their career. Previous effort Serotonin had attempted to build on the pop rush of that chart-aimed, career-high long player Twenty One – but its silky synths and watery emotion felt mawkish and lacklustre.
So, how do the tunes stack up this time round? Well, Mystery Jets headed to the States last year for inspiration and reinvigoration – and the result is not the US-inspired musical odyssey you might expect. They’ve eschewed synths for a rootsier sound, and although there’s the twang of a country-apeing slide guitar on several tracks – Radlands is quintessentially British, both in execution and themes. This is, if you like, the sound of four Englishmen looking back at their homeland from the midst of the American South.
In fact, if Radlands gives away anything about Mystery Jets in 2012, it’s that they’ve grown up. Lead-off single “Someone Purer” illustrates this perfectly, and the line “give me rock and roll” could be a strapline for the album. It’s epic, it’s determined, and it carries greater emotional resonance than we’ve witnessed before on a Mystery Jets album. But that’s not to say this album is without signature Jets wit: “Greatest Hits” is divine (even if it does come on sounding far too much like Steeler’s Wheel’s “Stuck In The Middle With You”), an acoustic-led jaunt through the most harrowed of post break-up rituals: the dividing up of a record collection. Name-checking albums by the likes of Wings, ABC and Belle & Sebastian, the line “I’m holding onto Village Green” backs up the jaunty, 60s vibe that recalls that very album – and reveals the boys’ hearts are still firmly grounded on British soil.
With the production sharper and the guitars harder this time ’round, it’s refreshing when the album takes a turn on tracks like “Take Me Where The Roses Grow”, a sweet duet with Sophie Rose, which harks back to the band’s 2008 get-together with Laura Marling on “Young Love” – but it’s more smoky, Stetson-wearing 70s truck stop performance than plum-spoken Oxford student tales. “Lonestar” resurrects the ghost of Gram Parsons and is the most out-and-and-out country track here, marking the point where the band sound most out of the comfort zone – but they breeze it with ease. And on the entirely-acoustic “Luminescence,” melancholy and reflection bring the album to an end, suggesting the Jets have opened the door to a future of more mature, more considered music making. With Kai Fish’s departure, the foundations of Mystery Jets may have been rocked – and as significant turning points in band careers go, the expectation on Radlands couldn’t be more weighty. Which makes it even more allaying that this has turned out to be the album of their career. But cherish them: they may not be around forever.