Visuals proves that Mew can carry on safely as a trio.
When founding guitarist/backing vocalist Bo Madsen announced his departure from Danish alt-rock/dream pop outfit Mew in 2015, fans were left fearful about the group’s future plans and potential. After all, these frengers (a mixture of “friend” and “stranger”, taken from 2003’s third LP) are some of the most dedicated devotees in modern music, and while Mew became a trio once before -- when bassist Johan Wohlert left in 2006, only to return in 2013 -- they had an abundance of visiting musicians to help flesh out 2009’s No More Stories.... In contrast, their seventh entry, Visuals, features only the other three original members (Wohlert, drummer Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen, and lead vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Jonas Bjerre) in addition to some help from guest guitarist Mads Wegner. As such, Visuals could either mark the trio’s artistic downfall or testify to how resilient and creative they remain in the face of such a hardship.
Thankfully, the sequence veers towards the latter outcome. Elaborating on the synth-laden pop lusciousness that its predecessor, +-, relished, Visuals finds Mew continuing to move away from the experimental art-rock tendencies of And the Glass Handed Kites and No More Stories... and towards a gentler, starrier, and more accessible foundation. Whether or not that’s a benefit or detriment is in the eye of the beholder, but it’d be difficult to deny that Visuals isn’t as charming and catchy as anything else they’ve done. Although its soundscapes sometimes overshadow its songwriting, the album captures just about everything that’s always made Mew special, so it also serves as a strong battle cry of a band that refuses to let a recent loss get in the way of their magic.
Rather than complete the album before imagining the “projections for the band’s live shows” (as he’s done in the past), Bjerre “decided to turn things upside down [here], picturing visuals in his mind first and seeing how they could inform the music”. Likewise, he wanted to abandon their tendency of “hiding away in a cave for three or four years between albums” to write new music and try something fresh. Bjerre wanted to make an album quickly and “spontaneously, keeping the energy they’d generated on the road [during the +- tour] going”. Expectedly, there’s a gloominess to the lyrics on Visuals -- as it finds the trio exploring the notion that “things don’t last forever, and it’s an important reminder to treasure the here and now” -- yet it only helps to brand the shimmering spaces even more effective and appealing.
As its title suggests, opener “Nothingness and No Regrets” feels like a bittersweet but hopeful consideration of both universal mortality and “this team of people trying to accomplish something and ultimately failing,” as Bjerre puts it. Forlorn acoustic guitar arpeggios match with ethereal synths and miscellaneous glittery tones that, when complemented by Bjerre’s silky singing (which conveys childlike innocence and frailty as well as ever), yield a wonderfully welcoming environment. Lyrically, it’s typically poetic and charming, with verses like “I don't know what makes it grow / I know that seasons come and seasons go” and “In our polyester death / There is nothingness and no regrets” juxtaposing the perpetual chorus -- “We could have made it / I believe we faded / And soon the world will too / We should have won it / Shown it”-- to truly pull at your heartstrings. Also, the way the track builds to a feisty outburst of frenzied percussion, dense vocal layers, and subtle guitar riffs is masterful, as is the characteristic change-up near the end. All in all, “Nothingness and No Regrets” is not only a stunning way to begin but also one of the finest entries in Mew’s entire arsenal.
“The Wake of Your Life” follows and is all-around quicker and brighter, with an exciting drumbeat leading the way as its central hook latches onto you. Like much of Visuals, it’s introspective yet danceable, fun on the surface but challenging underneath. Afterward, “Candy Pieces All Smeared Out” evokes And the Glass Handed Kites by balancing airy flashiness with the industrial aggression; also, it’s closing pattern is quite hypnotic. Later, “Ay Ay Ay” proves to be relatively unsettling, mostly because of how Bjerre infuses the repeated line “What’s wrong with his eyes?” with urgency and tragedy. It seems downright out of place, but that, alongside the overarching sense of affronted desperation in the music itself, aids the song’s uniqueness and power.
Colorful and easily accessible, “Twist Quest” sets itself apart with bouncy horns and groovy guitar licks, whereas “Shoulders” recalls the slow melancholy of “Silas the Magic Car” (from No More Stories...). Near the end, “85 Videos” is a cheerful romantic rocker whose retro vibrancy and tempo is wholly joyful, and “Carry Me to Safety” closes the record with its most sophisticated songwriting and multifaceted instrumentation. In particular, the accomplishment with which Bjerre sings the chorus -- “As I run / I wave to everyone / To each and every beholder / And I still wanna be grateful / But nothing keeps me / So I'm just coming back home” -- is instantly endearing, and the luminous explosions that surround him are equally inspiring and glorious. Like “Nothingness and No Regrets”, it’s one of the best Mew tracks yet.
While there are no bad selections on the LP, both “In a Better Place” and “Zanzibar” are noticeably lackluster compared to their siblings. The former simply isn’t very engaging in any way; all of the beloved elements are there, but they don’t do enough to really grab you. As for the latter song, its atmospheric sparseness is a respectable and haunting deviation from the album’s dominant formula, sure, but its vast emptiness makes it, well, boring. The band has certainly used quietness to great effect before, but this one is a bit too tedious to be a comforting sound.
Even with the aforementioned duo dragging down Visuals a tad, the majority of the record is magnificent. Granted, those who missed the avant-garde heaviness of earlier works on the glitzy +- will feel the same way about this one, but it’s hard to argue that trio isn’t just as dedicated, fearless, and confident in their new direction. Either way, there’s still no other band quite like Mew, and this seventh studio outing is a victory not only within itself, but also as a declaration of how strong and special Mew remains no matter how many years and/or members have passed since their first Triumph.