Danish alt-prog for the masses
by Jericho Cerrona
Alt-rock has had a fascinating journey over the past few decades. What began as an independently-minded response to the decadent bombast of the 1980s became something of a cultural touchstone in the 90s; with the distorted guitars turned up to 11 and the defiantly subversive lyrics peeling back the artificiality of the previous era. That there are now so many sub-genres within the paradigm now; Britpop, noise rock, dream pop, etc, only speaks to the way we've amassed a fusion/hybrid mentality in terms of how we take our alt-rock. Enter Danish four-piece Mew, who formed in the 90s before reaching critical success in the mid-2000s, and one can clearly see the early signifiers of this genre hybridization. Consisting of lead vocalist Jonas Bjerre, guitarist Johan Wohlert, and drummer Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen, Mew combined elements of dream pop, prog, and anthemic indie rock to spectacular effect. Albums like 2003's Frengers and 2006's And The Glass Handed Kites propped up the band as brilliant purveyors of epic soundscapes brimming with experimental indulgences, lead by Bjerre's uniquely alien falsetto. 2009's No More Stories Are Told Today, I'm Sorry They Washed Away//No More Stories, The World is Grey, I'm Tired, Let's Wash Away was just as self-indulgent as its purposefully long-winded title, and caused something of a schism amongst diehard fans. The 70s progressive elements that had always been a staple were pushed to the forefront, as was the dancier, more upbeat tone. It was the sound of a band with perhaps too many ideas and influences vying for attention, leading to a concept record that felt somewhat bloated and unwieldy. If this was alt-rock, no one bothered to tell Bjerre and company, who felt like they were a few wanking keyboard solos away from 70s progressive titans Yes.
Mew's latest work in six years, + - (or plus, minus), strips away many of the excesses of that previous album and adds a few more pop-oriented ingredients. For better or worse, this is Mew's most straightforward record to date; a collection of soaring, stadium-level rock songs that occasionally dip into ornate instrumentation and synth-imbued atmosphere. It's a very blissful listening experience, but there's also something missing here; a sense of darkness or danger, perhaps, which means sunny often turns into saccharine. Mew have always had a certain earnest corniness to their sound, which was often masked by the sheer grandiosity of the instrumentation. Here, the stadium "anthemness" of their M.O. is stretched and amplified, with more polished production and a discernible lack of experimentation. Of course, this doesn't mean that Mew have lost their unique identity. In some ways, + - is what they have been building to all along, with the return of longtime bassist Johan Wohlert, who was noticeably absent on No More Stories, bringing back some of the alt-rock accessibility of their early days. Still, one expects to feel the otherworldly pull of forces beyond one's control while listening to a Mew record, and unfortunately, + - is simply too safe to engender much awe.
Of course, it's entirely understandable that the band would attempt something less sprawling and self-congratulatory after No More Stories; but the lack of a coherent theme here (aside from some business about the duality of life via the album title) not to mention the absence of the foreboding edge that always lurked at the edges of their sound, means that much of their latest LP fails to connect on a visceral level. There's swirling arpeggios and warm synth washes all over opener "Satellites", garage rock-esque stomp on "Witness", a sugary-coated high-pitched chorus on "The Night Believer", and even some breathy vocals and R & B-influenced baselines on "Making Friends". The production on these songs by Michael Beinhorm (Korn, Marilyn Manson) and mixing by Rich Costey is dense and all-encompassing, which is a nice fit for an outfit like Mew, who have always dabbled in epicness. On the more musical varied tracks, such as "Clinging To A Bad Dream", which has caribbean-style rhythms and odd time signatures, Mew seems like they want to break out and get weird. However, for every fascinating diversion, there's something like "My Complications", which features Russell Lissack of Bloc Party, and ultimately sounds a lot like, well, Block Party.
Ultimately, courting mainstream success has always seemed like something Mew could accomplish if they would simply rid themselves of their more avant-garde inclinations. However, the last two tracks here are indicative of the band's unwillingness to go full-on pop hit single. The 10-minute "Rows" begins as a plaintive piano ballad before morphing during its final stretch into a symphony of swirling synths, ethereal vocal chants, and mid-tempo drumming. Meanwhile, closer "Cross The River On Your Own" also begins simply, almost unobtrusively, until making a stab at end-of-the-world lighter-waving anthem. There's even a sensitive guitar solo during the outro that will have even the most ingratiating hipster ducking for cover. Basically, Mew have never been and will never be a band that hits the zeitgeist sweet spot. Still, there's something slightly disconcerting about a new Mew record that doesn't go further into alienating the masses. Gone are the 23-word song titles and albums consisting of one long track stretching to nearly an hour, replaced here by bubbling pop romanticism. Something is amiss and yet all is not lost; Mew are still very much in control of their Danish alt-rock universe, but hopefully next time they will embrace more of the weird.