Beneath all the stylish and escapist waves of sound and texture on Slowdive's return, there is a profoundly human core waiting to be sought out and unearthed.
Twenty-two years have passed since Slowdive released their third LP and were swiftly dropped from their label. Nonetheless, anticipation for their long-awaited follow-up has been steadily building since their 2014 reunion and accompanying tour. The band's trajectory has been a somewhat unique one: if every good story fits into some pattern of rise and fall, Slowdive have traversed the "Cinderella" arc, rising to prominence and fame in the early '90s only to be chewed up by the British press as taste for shoegaze declined. The 2010s, in turn, have been far kinder to the band and the genre, thus completing everybody's favorite triumphant narrative. Ethereal dream pop is everywhere these days, championed by acts like Beach House and Wild Nothing who channel the same kinds of dark yet gentle romance. It is the perfect landscape, then, for their return.
In contrast to fellow shoegazers My Bloody Valentine, who returned from their own lengthy absence a few years back, Slowdive have always eschewed the more aggressive and noisy dimensions of the genre. Their sound is both more celestial and more liquid, like stars reflected and distorted in a lake at night. It is also perhaps more eclectic than they are sometimes given credit for. 1995's Pygmalion was more a wall of Spartan silence than a blanket of sound, while the 1993 masterpiece Souvlaki contained everything from the spacey psychedelia of "Souvlaki Space Station" to the bare, angsty drama of "Dagger". The question remained open, then, as to what approach the band would be most interested in taking with their return, the eponymous Slowdive.
As opener "Slomo" demonstrates, Slowdive have lost none of their love for pillowy, soaring guitars, punctuated here by Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell's lilting, gently acrobatic vocals. Simultaneously watery and elliptical, it is one of the stranger takes we've heard from either singer over the course of their career. Like Twin Peaks' Man From Another Place, it sounds almost as though they are singing backward when in fact they are not. While "Slomo" balloons upward with all the blissful intent of an Explosions in the Sky song, it remains moored by the gentle tug of Nick Chaplin's melodious bass line, keeping the song locked in its pristine, crystalline shape.
Indeed, Chaplin's bass playing is more prominent throughout Slowdive than on previously releases. The excellent "Sugar for the Pill" is also driven forward by his handiwork, which throbs darkly like something from the Cure or even Pixies. But the track as a whole is soft as ever, a veritable shooting star of a song that puts Halstead's husky, worn vocals to excellent use. "This jealousy will break the whole", he mourns, casting a shadow of regret, rumination, and even a hint of despair over the lovelorn soundscape.
"Sugar for the Pill" may be the album's emotional core, but its twin sister "No Longer Making Time" rivals it as a highlight. Twisting the same shimmering guitar tone into an even sharper melody, the track ultimately builds into perhaps the heaviest deluge of sound we get on the record, like a more somber reincarnation of Souvlaki's "When the Sun Hits". Within it all, Halstead's vocals retain the calm regret that in so many ways defines the album as a whole, meditating on the dissolution of love and connection with earned, battle-worn wisdom.
Not all tracks land with the same immediacy as the previous three—"Don't Know Why" and "Everyone Knows" are beautiful but relatively more nondescript, for instance—but all contribute in some way to the album's receding, snow-blanketed beauty. Lead single "Star Roving" is the most optimistic and extraverted of the bunch, living up to its whimsically adventurous title almost to a fault. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the spare, eight-minute album closer, the Pygmalion-esque "Falling Ashes". Receding almost entirely except for icy, minimal piano and Halstead and Goswell's hushed vocals, the track proves once again how much Slowdive can do even when they step out from behind their veils of mist.
While traces from each of their previous efforts show up throughout the album, Slowdive is resolutely its own animal. It is more gentle and peaceful than anything since their debut, but carries a subtle bitterness that belies its airy palette. Though shoegaze is not a genre known for its personal nature, Slowdive have often been exceptions to this rule, having produced any number of bare, emotional pieces over their career. Perhaps this is why they continue to be so relevant even to a new generation of listeners: beneath all the stylish and escapist waves of sound and texture, there is a profoundly human core waiting to be sought out and unearthed.