Only two years on from their +- album, Danish indie/pop/prog stalwarts Mew release an unexpected seventh album, first news of it coming early in the year with the appearance of closing track Carry Me To Safety, the gentle start opening out into a lush anthem of epic proportions with, as you’d expect, a hook to die for. This rush of activity – in Mew terms – is all the more surprising given the upheaval brought by the departure of founder member and guitarist Bo Maddsen in 2015. The three remaining members hit a rich vein of creativity while touring +- and have come up with a work of dreamy and expansive pop that retains the depth and unusual elements that fans of the band are sure to enjoy.
For me, Mew’s 2006 album And the Glass Handed Kites remains their best and one of my ‘desert island discs’, a jaw-droppingly fantastic collection of the unexpected tied together with some of the classiest melodies around. In contrast to Jonas Bjerre’s ethereally floating falsetto vocals, which give the music a shoegazey feel, the grunge was brought by Maddsen’s punky edge, the massive bass of Johan Wohlert giving the sound balls the size of an elephant’s wherever required. From a prog perspective, Mew haven’t been able to hit the same heights on their subsequent releases but each one is at the very least interesting and enjoyable, bearing repeated plays with ease, and on occasion they can be relied upon to lift you right to the stratosphere. Mew’s sound has evolved in a more keyboard oriented direction for Visuals, probably by necessity, with sweeping, almost orchestral soundscapes punctuated by rhythms from drummer Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen that often seem to be following their own path, the song somehow slotting in perfectly around it all to create an unusually challenging form of accessibility.
It’s often quite a bizarre match as Silas’ playing has become more angular and unusual on recent releases. It’s still ‘Dream Pop’ with a soaring airiness – although not pop in the expected sense, fans of the charts will no doubt be left scratching their heads as time changes and irregular beats infect the spellbindingly beautiful melodies. A big question is what effect Maddsen’s departure would have on the sound? Well, it is pretty obvious that some of the edges have been rounded off and whilst I’d been hoping that Wohlert’s bass would fill the void there is only occasional evidence of this happening. Mads Wegner has been drafted in to provide guitar alongside Bjerre, but the results are not as agitated or idiosyncratic as Maddsen’s contributions to albums like +-, they are lower-key and more polite. Likewise the bass, though present throughout, is good-natured and warm rather than massive and all-conquering. It does come through to great effect in Candy Pieces All Smeared Out, for example, and it’s the unusual rhythms of the intro that set this song apart, linked perfectly with a sublime melodic chorus. The rhythm in the verse sounds like a cousin to Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting, the whole being sweet and fluffy but with a steely and inventive heart; pop music for people who don’t like that sort of thing. It gets very weird at times but the unexpectedly spectacular chorus with swooping bass is completely killer and worth the cost of entry on its own.
Self-produced by the band and adorned with artwork by Bjerre, there’s a very ‘in-house’ feel to Visuals, the expansive and upbeat sounds oozing quality and presented just as the band want them to be. Opener Nothingness and No Regrets is light and twinkly before kicking into a typically enthralling Mew structure on the back of Silas’ energetic propulsion, as is In A Better Place, a fantastic lead keyboard line set against Silas’ poly-rhythms, Bjerre sailing effortlessly overhead with his insrutible lyrics; nobody else sounds like this. However, concluding the piece with a moody vibe and Miles Davis-like otherworldly trumpet is unusual even for Mew. Elsewhere, the faux false start at the beginning of The Wake of Your Life, a rousing and assured slab of gorgeousness, is typically quirky in its inclusion.
Probably the closest track to anything on And the Glass Handed Kites, the bass is agreeably to the fore on Ay Ay Ay until the chorus takes over, while Learn Our Crystals adds a very funky beat to the originally sparse backing, the snazzy rhythms taking the piece in unexpected directions, fiesta horn parts making an interesting appearance before a smooth and classy finish. It is well paired with Twist Quest, all lolloping beats and picked guitar with lots of brass and sax bringing the funk – very unusual, but as you’d expect, the chorus is sublime. 85 Videos is keyboard driven with lovely driving drums, the disco edge in the verse reminiscent of something Madonna might have done in the ’80s, but again the chorus comes out of nowhere, beautifully realised and lifting you to the heavens, brass adding highlights during the quiet bit.
There are some more subtle tracks, Shoulders is quite subdued but beautifully understated and Zanzibar is as dreamy as a starlit night on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Finally we get Carry Me To Safety to round things off perfectly.
Visuals is smoother and less wilfully difficult than the last couple of release, and whilst upping the quirk factor here and there it successfully works within the Mew blueprint whilst being more accessible than they can often be. It’s a very likeable album and after acclimatising during the first couple of listens it has had me grinning from ear to ear ever since and is still on heavy rotation.
Having returned to releasing their music independently, over the course of 20 years Mew have resolutely adhered to their principles, creating the music that they want to make, when they want to make it. They are to be cherished, a unique proposition that appeals to listeners across a number of styles and genres. Their rare shows in the U.K. later this month are a mouthwatering prospect.
01. Nothingness and No Regrets (4:28)
02. The Wake of Your Life (4:41)
03. Candy Pieces All Smeared Out (3:37)
04. In a Better Place (4:40)
05. Ay Ay Ay (3:41)
06. Learn Our Crystals (5:21)
07. Twist Quest (3:19)
08. Shoulders (2:53)
09. 85 Videos (4:37)
10. Zanzibar (2:04)
11. Carry Me to Safety (4:27)
Total Time – 43:48
Jonas Bjerre – Lead Vocals, Keyboards, Guitar
Johan Wohlert – Bass, Backing Vocals
Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen – Drums & Percussion
Mads Wegner – Additional Guitar
Marius Neset – Saxophone
Bo Rande – Trumpet, Flugelhorn
Sasha Ryabina – Backing Vocals
Søren Møller – Additional Keyboards
Record Label: Play It Again Sam
Country of Origin: Denmark
Date of Release: 28th April 2017