Shoegaze icons Slowdive have arguably proved more popular in death than they were in life: dismissed by the press in their ‘90s heyday, the band who were signed to (then dropped by) Alan McGee’s fabled Creation Records have amassed legions of new followers in their time apart. 22 years on, the UK group’s comeback album finds them cementing their legacy. April Clare Welsh delves into a record that was worth the wait.
Slowdive were in lot of ways victims of their time. When they were axed from Creation Records a week after releasing their third album Pygmalion in 1995, it was in part because Britpop was in vogue, and a nine-track ambient LP simply wasn’t going to cut it with festival crowds gravitating en masse towards laddy anthem-makers with attitude.
Lead songwriters Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell wrote Pygmalion knowing that they were about to be dropped by Alan McGee’s label. Instead of paying lip service to the mid-90s zeitgeist of Cool Britannia, that record sought to exist on a plane of its own, resulting in one of the decade’s most beautiful releases. After quietly disbanding, they eventually reformed for Primavera Sound in 2014 and enjoyed a successful run of shows, before surprising fans by confirming new material. Slowdive, their first album in 22 years, ushers in a new pop renaissance for the band, favoring the substantial over the minimal, while also quietly confirming their position as one of the definitive shoegaze crews.
Slowdive’s decision to self-title their fourth album suggests a desire to reclaim autonomy and start writing their own narrative after years of being eclipsed by more dominant voices. And as comeback albums go, Slowdive is a confident statement that breezes along the vibrant side of the tracks – the band are 22 years older (and wiser), but their zest certainly hasn’t withered. One of the best things about shoegaze is how it has stood the test of time – it wasn’t cool to like it then and it’s certainly not cool to like it now – but that’s probably why it’s dated so well.
However, Slowdive isn’t a comeback album that duly picks up where the band left off, trapped in the ethereal haze of Pygmalion. Instead, it distills all the band’s defining qualities – swirling guitars, bittersweet male/female vocal sparring, contrast and texture – into a meaty, muscular record that hits the highs of the ‘90s, while also tuning into the hypnagogic moments the band are famous for.
The album’s seven-minute opener posits gently chiming guitars that wax and wane as Goswell’s voice just about slides into earshot, a classically dreamy turn for the band. There’s also a nod to their electronic explorations with the plaintive textures of ‘Falling Ashes’ and ‘Go Get It’, but fans hoping for an extension of Pygmalion’s gauzy brilliance will be largely disappointed – Slowdive blazes with anthemic meteors like ‘Star Roving’ and ‘No Longer Making Time’ that crash and burn with knowing prowess.
Elsewhere, the band’s pop-powered comeback is more subtle, yet still palpable. The incandescent hook of ‘Don’t Know Why’ lingers long after the song has finished and while the soft-rock polish of ‘Sugar for the Pill’ is downtempo and despondent (the track explores heartbreak), it’s anything but wispy. ‘Everyone Knows’ pits Goswell’s falsetto against chugging post-punk, while the track’s seamless and shimmering reverb-drenched guitars should help to remind nu-gaze adoptees that Slowdive did it first.
“It’s poppier than I thought it was going to be,” notes Halstead in the press release. Slowdive is essentially the album Alan McGee wanted from the band in 1995 – but done on their own terms.
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