Album Review: Mew - '+-'

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Progressive art pop/rock band Mew returns after a 6-year hiatus with their most vital record of their career and the greatest leap forward for their already-impressive songwriting skills.

Mew always were an acquired taste. It's not because they are especially difficult; one hears in their songs glimmers of a number of bands old and new, none of whom are in particular ill-repute.

For instance, their take on symphonic influences in rock have always felt like a slightly smarter take on what Muse has been up to, swapping out the madball cabaret influence of Queen for the lush and fairy-like effervescence of Yes (a band that has always been, for whatever reason, easier to replicate than the former).

Likewise, their occasionally mathy takes on rhythm remind either of vintage Yes or of the more subtle proggy indie rock of groups like Foals and Minus the Bear.

And yet, even at their height over a decade ago now, Mew never quite overtook their peers. They all started around the same time, but Mew never quite resonated with indie or rock crowds as strongly as the others.

Perhaps it is how foregrounded and obvious their progressive influences are; no matter what the band says, it is impossible to listen to Frengers or especially their masterpiece And the Glass-Handed Kites and not come away feeling like you've heard a definitively more modern prog rock revival effort than retroists like Spock's Beard and the Flower Kings were giving us two decades ago.

(Much love to SB and TFK, of course.)

Or perhaps it is the time gaps between records. +-, their most recent, is only their 6th in almost 20 years as a group.

It comes after a 6 year gap between it and its preceding record No More Stories, which itself followed a difficult 4 year span of time between it and Kites.

It is hard not to feel that the difficulties the band faced regarding losing their bassist, backing vocalist, and founding member, rearranging material to continue to play it live without him, efforts to find a replacement, and all of the fine details that come from attempting to work around losing a member when you play music with this many moving parts didn't take away perhaps too much of their steam in terms of popularity.

Which is a damn shame. Because their output has been remarkable, sophisticated, fun, complex, lush, and shimmeringly cinematic, like watching a film reel found in the buried recesses of a fairytale dream.

Apparently, between the last record and this one, Mew reunited with their old bassist, who departed on good terms to be with his child and young family but has since found the time to return. You can hear the joy in them at his returning.

No More Stories was by no means a bad album; if anything, its biggest weakness was it felt too keenly like a Kites pt.

2, a band exploring the long-form suite-like compositional style of their earlier record in their new unasked-for trio lineup.

They turned in good songs on what is overall a very strong record, but in terms of clear sonic evolution, the record didn't feel as much as a gargantuan leap as Kites was over Frengers, or that record was over their earlier records.

Mew wastes no time showing off their new ideas on +-. It's telling that this is the first record of theirs since Frengers not to have an instrumental intro track.

Where Kites opened with a muscular almost prog metal instrumental and No More Stories began with moody guitar and synth work, +- launches immediately into an Engineers-style shoegazing art rock riff.

There is a richness to the riff almost immediately that one can only think comes from the return of their prodigal son; with the bass able to switch between shaping the odd rhythms with the drummer and fleshing out the warm beds of shimmering synthesizers, it frees the guitar up to do mathy prog-indie riffing.

"Satellites", the opener, encapsulates the albums movements as a whole. It is not a radical departure from the sound Mew has crafted over the years.

If anything, +- signals a return to the more artsy pop-rock indie leanings of Frengers, compacting the suite-length compositions of Kites and No More Stories within the bounds of single songs.

There are bridges, pre-choruses, intros, digressions, variations; there is a richness of songwriting and subtle variation here that makes each song feel like an epic even when they are ending after a mere 5 minutes.

It's not unlike Drake or Kanye or Kendrick's latest works in that way, making epics in minutes.

For the most part, the sound sticks to a combination of bright 80s synth pop, Yes-influenced and math rock-touched riffing, and Beach Boys-style vocal complexity passed through modern indie rock and shoegazing production ideas. There are times, such as in the second track "Witness," where the influence of groups like Interpol or The Postal Service or Bloc Party is felt, pressed right up against the progressive leanings.

On this album, they up their energy, offering a bass presence and up-tempo approach to the drumming and riffing and bass work that gives the songs a more fervent power than Mew has had in a long time.

It's enervating; they are happy to have their brother back in the fold, and you can hear it clearly.

The pacing on this record is perhaps their best so far.

Where Kites more or less functioned as an album-length song suite, its energy wavered near the end, stacking the more ethereal pieces in a block at the end of the record in a way that sapped a lot of the energy it had built up over the course of its run-time.

Likewise, No More Stories was a bit more scattershot, seguing sometimes and giving clear endings others in a way that became more disruptive the more you listened to it.

It's hard not to feel that perhaps Mew has been made aware of groups like CHVRCHES and Alvvays, especially on tracks like "The Night Believer," which trades in their knotted proggy guitar riffs and rhythmic pulses for something a bit more infectious and synth poppy. This is far from a complaint, however; Mew had only rarely shown more direct melodic impulses prior to this record, instead focusing on developing their more clearly artsy impulses.

Those skills having developed satisfactorily, it is refreshing to see them return with guns blazing to straight up pop.

It kills me that the song fades out instead of receiving an ending, though. It feels like a cheat after one of their best straight-forward pop songs of their career.

"Making Friends," the fourth track of the record, surprises with a smooth R&B rhythm and a distorted melodic funk bassline.

Of course, since this is still Mew, it inevitably drops into cinematic Cure-style synthesizers and a Pink Floyd guitar lead.

It's a curious mixture on paper, until you realize that all of these elements have a kind of smoothness and buried emotionalism that bubbles up to the surface.

Mew offers a wise take on modern progressive music, offering genre juxtapositions meant not to shock for their curiousness or jarring elements, but the way they subtly reinforce one another.

And, to astute listeners, the influence of psychedelic and progressive music as well as art pop/rock on quiet storm and the more robust studio R&B isn't really a secret; again, there are reasons why people like Common, Kanye, Drake, the Roots, Maxwell, and the Weeknd draw from this well.

The next track, "Clinging to a Bad Dream," is driven by an 80s King Crimson-style prog funk rhythm, almost approaching gamelan.

It blossoms eventually into a lush sea of reverbed U2-style minimalist guitar and synths backed by an art-dance rhythm from the bassist and drummer.

It is precisely these kinds of curious genre juxtapositions that make Mew so exciting; they each feel necessary to enriching the specific song and rarely feel out of place, but offer that subtle thrill of a fitting sound you didn't expect right at that moment.

It is by "My Complications" that the tenor of this record is established in comparison to the rest of Mew's canon. They've hinted at a willingness to provide this kind of bass-heavy rave-up rock tune before, but they've never delivered quite to this level before.

All the bells and whistles of a typical Mew song are still present, all the same blend of influences, but there is an energy here that they have only gestured to before.

If any other band dropped this as a single, it would be an indie rock hit.

With the lushness Mew offers to what in other hands would be a far more spare song, who knows; but in a just world, this will become their biggest song yet.

It is precisely because, for being a rock band, Mew has for so long been afraid to truly rock. They have teased it, of course; the muscular opener "Circuitry of the Wolf" from Kites and "Repeaterbeater" from No More Stories come to mind.

But "My Complications" is the kind of song where you want to dance in your seat, or imagine yourself twirling arms wide around a fountain in public, or kissing someone you love, or thumping the steering wheel of your car with the meat of your palm in a red light, feeling a moment's freedom before a long day at work as the sounds wash out the life you lead and paint anew a life you wish you had.

It's maybe their most magical song and even if none of the other songs on this record were worthwhile (they are), it alone would justify this record.

Mew follows this high-energy track with another slower R&B-influenced track in "Waterslides." The synth tone is perhaps the most modern Mew has ever used, tapping into the burbling and humming of modern electronic dance music buffeted with a thick and sensual bassline and half-tempo drum groove.

The chorus opens up into angelic washes of gospel-style synths in a page out of late 80s Cure. This leads into the more sensual groove of "Interview the Girls," another track that explores these new influences on their sound.

It's hard not to imagine that it was the time off their bassist had with his young family that brought some of these rhythmic and melodic ideas back into the band.

The main elements of their sound remain song to song: art pop, art rock, classic prog, synth pop, a touch of goth rock richness, math rock, and indie rock as the glue to hold it all together.

But there is a definite sensuality to these rhythms that was not present before; there is a suppleness to the movements of their baselines and shifting of their melodies that are less oriented toward the knotted and heavily-syncopated moves of their earlier work and instead move toward a more subtle if still remarkably dense and complex web of sound.

In other words, this is the sonic leap forward that No More Stories almost but wasn't quite aiming for.

The return of their bass player and other founding member offers a robustness, an additional player capable of a number of roles, that allows the music to get fleshed out and move in directions that they clearly have wanted to go.

The six years have not been wasted; this sounds like six years of evolution.

What follows is "Rows," Mew's longest song to date. It is funny to think there was a time they chafed at the designation of being a prog rock band in the same modern day school as Coheed and Cambria, Mystery Jets and the Secret Machines.

"Rows" offers, to be blunt, a kind of modern indie approach to the kind of music Yes should be making at this stage in their career but aren't.

That is not to reduce the track to but one clear influence; ambient music, shoegaze, and subtler indie rock play in as well. Mew is, as ever, a modern band, syncretic but not dated.

"Rows" captures in its 11-minute span what Kites sought to achieve over its span; it plays as a suite, shirking clear choruses or reprises, instead opting for a slowly-evolving progressive song structure. It's an epic that, had it been placed on an album more like its kind, would be lauded in prog circles as a great modern epic.

As it stands, I fear that it will be dismissed by prog and indie circles alike.

This is a hideous crime if it is the case; "Rows" encapsulates how the modern sounds independent music has been exploring can be merged seamlessly with classic prog ideas to generate new, enervating, emotionally satisfying and cerebral music all at once.

If "My Complications" is the best straightforward tune Mew has written to date, this is their best progressive piece, or perhaps their best period.

Mew slows down for the finale "Crossing the River on Your Own" in a typical move for them. But in this instance, it feels properly like the grand finale they have always wanted; the energy leading up to "Rows" preps the listener for something grandiose and complex, and the seamless transition from that tune into this one leaves a perfect weariness to soothe with a gentler piece.

It is precisely a matter of pacing.

Mew's slower album closers have always been strong songs, only diminished by having too many stacked one against each other.

This time, Mew wisely sprinkled some of their slower material through the body of the record, leaving this far more cinematic and emotive closer to stand alone and drink up more of the emotional release needed at the end of the record.

It is a piano and plucked guitar-led piece, gentle and bright, swarming with chorus vocals and occasionally brimming with the bursts of light from the synthesizers and bass playing. It feels not entirely unlike a more modern tune by Marillion or Transatlantic or any of a number of other modern prog rock bands.

The difference is one of the context within the record, being paired against shoegaze and art pop and dance rock and other indie sonic mainstays alongside the clear progressive influence.

There will of course be some buzzkills who will find this cheesy; dismiss them. Maybe on its own, the song would be overbearing, but as an album closer, it shuts the tap tight at just the right time.

Overall, this is Mew's strongest record to date. The time off did them well, and the energy they received from the return of their bassist is palpable. They made a jump forward, incorporating a wider range of both more mainstream indie and progressive influences, and managed to execute them well.

Furthermore, their pacing has improved significantly, no longer leaving a record of otherwise great songs that tends to peter out when listened to fully in sequence.

One can only hope that we don't have to wait 6 years for the next one. But if it means another satisfying leap like this one, perhaps that wouldn't be so bad.

Image taken from Mew's Facebook page.