Slowdive: A Sputnik Guide
This feature is part of a newly-rebooted series aimed at exploring the discographies of interesting and/or important bands whose wider body of work is often overlooked on this site. There will be lots of words and a few pictures, but the main deal is that if a band features here, they are good and you should listen to them! And if you already jam them, hit up the comments and explain where and why I went wrong! Get going!
Previously covered discographies:
Everyone loves Slowdive! One of the rare bands to come out of shoegaze and dream pop playing both genres their own while playing them to the best of their potential, their value has gone up and up and up over the last decade, and neither the past decade’s outpouring of soppy bedroom artists through every pore of the internet nor shoegaze’s TikTok resurgence aren’t entirely to blame for it. Let’s all love Slowdive!
With Souvlaki‘s 30th anniversary back in June and Just for a Day’s 32nd just last week (along with a new LP, Everything is Alive), it is time to remember this greatest of it is time to dive once into the shoe, to gaze once more at the slow. I’m going to cover every individual release here (no comps!), and I ended up doing it so quickly that I entirely forgot that Frippertronics actually made his own version of this list in 2017 until I was 75% of the way through. Six years and a new LP is sufficient basis for a reappraisal, but oof, my bad baby.
Now shut up, let’s gaze…
Slowdive (EP) (1990)
So for those just joining us here, did you know that shoegaze has three whole origin myths? Wild! It has lived a thousand lives yet only been born thrice. How does that work? Well, you have:
1) Whispered pre-MBV prophecies containing the words “proto” and “avant” that we shall ignore here as they are largely ignored elsewhere, sorry A. R. Kane and Cocteau Twins retconners.
2) The chaotic but also inertia-prone zygote of noise- and dream- pops ricocheting from one side of Isn’t Anything‘s womb to another, celebrating probably the only sexual communion ’80s Kevin Shields had ever experienced given that record’s dick-brained level of schoolboy penmanship
3) An allegory for a lazy twenty-something who woke from a nap only to doze off again. That’s literally it. Cute.
Slowdive’s self-titled EP is, uh, the third option. Definitely the third. It defines shoegaze right down to its wavy, couch-bound roots not by being the first or the most groundbreaking or the most iconic release in the canon, but by taking the genre’s core formula (FUZZ+ETHEREAL) and epitomising its strengths as straightforwardly as could be. “Slowdive” gently rouses itself, or us, or the band, or someone, with overdriven shimmer, hushed vocals murmuring vaguely melodious nothings as a winding guitar lead snakes its BLEARY way into the history books. It out starts on the threshold of sleep, goes nowhere, and demands nothing of its audience but a peaceful temperament. It is complete.
Once that moment passes, the two “Avalyn” songs are a jam session that inadvertently opened a portal into ethereal paradise and remain one of Slowdive’s crowning achievements. That’s it – two songs (‘three’ if you make the unforgivable error of separating the Avalyns), one perfect EP. Nothing more to pick apart – Slowdive is primitive, pure and flooringly beautiful and still stands as a high watermark for earlydays gaze.
Now this is the beginning of Slowdive as we know them today, and it’s not a bad start at all! These three songs are distinctly more song-like than on the self-titled EP, but the self-titled also has better songs: sometimes the road to maturity is a walk in the park when you’re going to the pub.
The main event here is definitely the title-track, a drench of swooning guitars and stunning vocal harmonies that epitomises everything positive about early shoegaze’s relationship with pop songwriting, but the somewhat plodding “She Calls” is a neat link with the ethereal wave stylings that most ’90s gazers were soon to jettison in favour of more vogue stylings (can’t say Curve, Chapterhouse, Medicine and co. made bad work out of these on the DANCE front, or Catherine Wheel and Swervedriver on the GRUNGE front).
Cool! These are great shoegaze songs and you would benefit from having them in your life. The only thing you need, however, is the nigh-on godlike strum of reverberated tremoloed gazey fuzz that opens the title-track: forget “Only Shallow”, that shit is the best scene-setter shoegaze ever had. Morningrise does kind of peak in its first two seconds as such, but then again, doesn’t shoegaze as a whole?
Holding Our Breath (1991)
A relatively inessential EP that largely stands as a transition into Just for a Day‘s soupier sound – stay tuned for more on that! “Shine” is one of their better and, appropriately, brighter songs in this vein and “Catch the Breeze” arguably their peak for the era (more on that via the album version). The remaining two tracks flesh out gaseous atmospheres in haunting (“Albatross”) and largely forgettable (“Golden Hair”) tones – it doesn’t add up to a release of particular gravity, but there’s enough here to warrant a pass if you haven’t heard it already.
Just for a Day (1991)
Nyugh. The Slowdive story so far has introduced us to Slowdive the daydream-gazers and Slowdive the gazers-emerging-as-competent-songwriters – their full length debut Just for a Day shows them balancing both guises within and between individual songs with well-intentioned paws of lard. This record leans heavily into dream pop, but the dream in question is less of the elegant pop songcraft that Souvlaki and even the self-titled comeback would exhibit so generously, and much more a foreshadowing of the torporous treacle spillage that the Radio Depts, Groupers, and – you guessed it – Beach Houses of the world would listlessly regurgitate for years to come. “Celia’s Dream”, “The Sadman” and “Ballad of Sister Sue” are particularly grievous offenders here, full of tepid progressions, infinity degrees of useless reverb, and some of the flattest vocal lines I’ve ever heard on a pop-umbrella album. What happened to that knack for the perfect hook that “Morningrise” had shown off just months earlier? How do you follow an otherwise entirely self-explanatory path from that song to “Alison” with this stale faff in between? Pfft.
And yet, Slowdive were never to drop the ball entirely: “Waves” and “Brighter” at least show off aesthetically pleasant soundscapes, and the album does contain two exceptional tracks, both of which serve as a fair yardstick for where their songwriting would be expected to be at this point. “Catch the Breeze” hardly needs an introduction for how it picks at the bones of something sublime only to follow them all the way to heaven in a gorgeous vision of a coda that I doubt they will ever top for delicacy. “Primal” has more meat and skin to show for itself, but these weightier emotional concerns – where the rest of the album dozes and ponders, this one broods with a vengeance, ultimately drawing itself together into one of the most climactic rushes of the Slowdive discography. Closing the album, it’s a heavy payoff for a long slog – since “Catch the Breeze” appeared on Holding Our Breath, I’ll posit that it is worth the price of admission alone.
We make a lot of fuss over the backlash Slowdive received at the hands of ’90s hack journalists, but I honestly can’t find it in me to blame anyone for being poisoned against them by this record.
Outside Your Room (1993)
I’m not sure how to feel about this one – on the one hand, it’s a neat but retroactively somewhat redundant teaser for Souvlaki, introducing two of that album’s highlights with a ponderous dud sandwiched in between; on the other hand, you could argue that it’s the way to experience Slowdive’s legendary dub-gaze masterpiece “Souvlaki Space Station”. The extended coda track “Moussaka Chaos” is, well, maybe not essential to the main event, but certainly a cool encore for anyone hell-bent on said station completing an extra orbit. Definitely try those two together at least once. Can’t say much for the EP as a whole though – hearing “Alison” as the opener to anything other than Souvlaki just feels wrong, and “So Tired”, the final hangover of the Just for a Day era is perhaps best forgotten entirely.
However, the change it marked was a highly fortuitous one: Slowdive were at once getting more adventurous with their palette and layerings, and honing their pop chops to a fine science. Uncanny placement or not, “Alison”‘s woozy drugs&sex dysphoria narrative is iconic for shoegaze as a whole, and its exquisite vocal melodies and rapturous layerings make for one of the triumphs of verse/chorus gaze. It, and this EP, represent a huge leap for Slowdive, but why remember them mid-air when they landed such an essential release the other side?
A / B
(sum-of-its-parts / essential value)
Alright, here we are. Souvlaki doesn’t get an introduction; if you know Slowdive, you know this record and you know the parts of the discourse that matter – so let’s start there: is this one’s status worth it? Why is this such an enduringly beloved record? Why is it an ultra-visible music-classic as opposed to a humble genre-classic? And why, in spite of all that, do the most finicky shoegaze gatekeepers still struggle to accept it in the same bracket as Loveless?
The last two question is the easiest to answer, and largely come down to Souvlaki‘s modulated approach: where Loveless epitomises the uncompromising whiteout many would consider essential to shoegaze – another genre myth – Souvlaki maps out a whole range of genre possibilities with uniformly excellent songwriting judgements. This covers everything from template shoegaze (“40 Days”) to crossovers with dub (“Souvlaki Space Station”), slowcore (“Dagger”), ambient delirium (“Sing”), and – you guessed it – dream pop (practically every other track). The versatility here suggests a lot to love, but also a lot to look out for: where Loveless is an ultimate glass canon, laying down a bullish take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum that has by and large been very much taken despite its vulnerability on many other fronts, Souvlaki poses several requirements of its audience. You must have a sensitivity to lyricism on the basic level of scene and narrative (but make absolutely no demands of it on the level of poetry); you must jive with an actively two-way relationship between sentimentalism and aesthetics; you must trace the shape of the album from the path of its sequencing rather than slurping it up from its commitment to any given set of stylistics; you must appreciate substance in your songwriting, but also indulge the band in occasional moments of weightlessness. None of these are exactly prohibitive, but taken together it’s understandable that Souvlaki‘s standing among the die-hard shoegaze fanbase, with their infamously narrow criteria for indiscriminate praise, has never quite reached 100% impeccability.
I think the reason Souvlaki enjoys such acclaim and reach beyond the confines of the shoegaze canon is that, shit damn, there is such a palpable of emotional gravity here. The album’s background story as an Halstead and Goswell’s breakup record is well-established, and while the shockwaves of this are borderline naked at points (“Here She Comes”, “Dagger”, “40 Days”, “Melon Yellow”) and blearily nostalgic at others (“Altogether”), they add a melancholic undertone to the album’s radiant moments (“When the Sun Hits”, “Machine Gun”, “Souvlaki Space Stations”) and underscore “Alison” being far more depressive opiate bender than sexed-up bedroom glow (no comment on which of the two is more relatable for your average dreamgaze fan). The mood – not just the mood, the scene – here is so richly fleshed out, so much more than the sum of the album’s parts that practically every level of its craft feeds into a deeper basis for connection – and if that isn’t something you appreciate in a classic record, music ain’t for you.
Dirty secret: my copy of Souvlaki is the US edition, which comes with basically this entire EP (minus “In Mind”) pasted onto the end, and since I was end-to-ending that disc heavily back in the day, I’m now convinced that these tracks’ inclusion is at least 25% of the reason why Souvlaki is such a comfortable 5[.0 Classic]. This is so blissful, in a way that rightly acknowledges that while Slowdive’s pop songwriting is a great vehicle for distinct emotional beats and vivid boy/girl-in-a-room lyrical snapshots, it could never fully contain the vastness of Slowdive’s atmospheric side. This is basically the same lesson that they’d already taught us on “Avalyn”, but the difference here is that they take an unexpected steep_dive into, of all things, ambient techno.
The results are wondrous, bridging the playbooks of Souvlaki and Pygmalion with the conviction of a great band at the peak of their creative powers. These four tracks blend together more seamlessly than any given sequence in the band’s discography, the opener “In Mind” a spellbinding portrait of rave ecstasy frozen in time, while the beats and shimmering loops of the attention-starving central duo “Good Day Sunshine” and “Missing You” take up precisely long enough not to alienate anyone approaching the EP from a non-electronic background. Get through that, and Rachel Goswell has her GOAT performance on “Country Rain”, all sparseness and fragility in a way that chimes perfectly with this EP’s aesthetic. This is an essential deep cut, and anyone who claims you otherwise can is a pitiable bunk in need of a relisten. Get on it.
“The other one.” Pygmalion stands alone in any discussion of Slowdive: its approach and aesthetic are such a departure, so much more expansive in their atmosphere and minimalistic arrangements, so much looser in their structure, so mysterious in their palette. Where the hooks and layerings of earlier and subsequent Slowdive are routinely sugary, here they are sparse or even starched: opener “Rutti” is a 10-minute challenge to pry open an oblique set of melodies; “Trellisaze” takes a single delay-layered chord strum and metronomic beat to such spartan extents of mesmerism that you’re either riveted to the spot or asleep at the end of the first minute.
Riveting it most certainly is, but Pygmalion and its inspirations speak to a different audience: though its form is mutated far more than on 5, ambient techno casts a long shadow over the songwriting style (Seefeel is an obvious pick, but Aphex Twin is a cited influence from as far back as “Souvlaki Space Station”), while the chamber-rock instrumentation and atmosphere land the album a spot in the holy early post-rock trinity of Laughing Stock and Hex (where it handily holds its own). There are also very welcome hints of an eerie folk styling that nods back to Dead Can Dance’s ethereal work in that Vein – the cyclical meditation “J’s Heaven” and, especially, “Miranda” and GOAT interlude “Visions of La” do great work in this vein. It all comes together as a strange mix: we’re speaking a different language here, and no-one knew what to do with it at the time.
Jump to the present, and Pygmalion enjoys recognition as a cult classic and – more importantly as one of the most perfect records I’ve ever heard for the earliest hours of the morning (especially if you ain’t slept). These songs demand too much inner peace of their listener to make for easy binge material (for me, at least lol), yet make for arguably the most enriching experience Slowdive have to offer in the right context. Each track brings such a different voice to the album’s ongoing space-out that I don’t get quite the same level of inner cohesion as Souvlaki, but song-for-song you could easily argue this is the stronger of the two.
But that would be hella lame! The Pygmalion versus Souvlaki narrative of One Best Album is second only to the Slowdive versus My Bloody Valentine for tedious discussions that impose an unnecessarily restrictive framework on this wonderful band’s legacy: they produced two masterpieces of drastically different natures, and the discerning ones among us are grateful for that above all else.
Or alternatively, fuck that noise: chew on Pygmalion versus Laughing Stock, you geeky sods.
Slowdive (LP) (2017)
This is going to be my favourite kind of blurb: you’re almost all wrong about this album! This is at once their most overrated and overhated record, though it’s easy to see why. On the one hand, this is the most overtly poppy record in the band’s arsenal and it went out of its way to incorporate contemporary stylings, ushering in a whole new audience for whom this was suddenly the Slowdive album. Whether or not one trusts nu-gaze entryists is another matter, but fair fucks to their choice of entrance.
On the other hand, this is the most overtly poppy record in the band’s arsenal and it went out of its way to incorporate contemporary stylings: out with ’90s fuzzy haze-gaze, in with ’10s twinkly slick-shit polish. I for one have no issue with Slowdive sounding a little less Souvlaki and a lot more like A Beacon School and School of Seven Bells (…the two STAR PUPILS of nu-gaze academy ha ha?), but the results bloody well vary.
The resplendent opener “Slomo” and the breathless rush of “Don’t Know Why” both nail the album’s pop mission statement inside-out and stand tall among Slowdive’s discog highlights, both dazzling in their layerings, both thoroughly inspired in their vocal hooks (and harmonies, oh baby) in a way that nothing else here really approaches. “Sugar For The Pill” is a serviceable pop track rooted in ultra-familiar vocal cadences that, production aside, could have been recorded for any other British album at any point in the last thirty-odd years: it earns its keep here as it would on whichever record, but does little for this one’s ceiling.
The rest of the record is anything from dull (“Go Get It”) to overly lightweight (“Everyone Knows”) to outright perplexing (lead single “Star Roving” does not stick the landing with its feint at an alternative ’90s where Slowdive took after jangle- rather than dream- pop), boasting limited staying power. The weaker songs (and, well, the good’uns too) lean heavily on production, which is one element I can hardly fault at all: this album throws out the density of past records in favour of ultra-clarity and high definition. The artwork is helpful here: goodbye swirling hues, hello crisp neon outlines. This isn’t enough to save the fundamentally lightweight set of tracks in the album’s second half, but we’ll give full marks for engineering and commitment to the aesthetic.
Ultimately, I can respect this album for asserting Slowdive’s ambidextrous mastery of all things shoegaze and dream pop over the glossy trends set by a generation of bands who owe a great deal to them. They’re either murdering their offspring or cashing in on a debt – hats off either way. It has such a significant function in their discography that I guess we can call it essential, but after “Sugar For The Pill” introduces just the faintest hint of stodge to the tracklist, its consistency and pacing rapidly spiral out of control. A mixed bag, then.
Everything is Alive (2023)
For almost six impeccable minutes, Everything is Alive is everything anyone could ever have wanted from Slowdive in 2023 – opener “Shanty” immediately reintroduces the swirling palette and fuzz – now crackling like never before! – of their ’90s heyday, complemented with a pulsing synthline that moves in and out of the mix with delicious slickness, destined to immediately restore the confidence of anyone whose affections the band originally wooed back in 2017. Are reunion Slowdive now in full communion with their roots? Is this the best of both worlds, the band’s ultimate form?
Not quite. “Prayer Remembered” preserves the illusion that it might be for another five minutes in an instrumental show of restraint that could pass for a jam from the Souvlaki or 5 sessions (dumbed down and spruced up to suit the audience and palette, respectively, of the self-titled LP) – from there, the tracklist is a competent hodgepodge of old tropes and new fatigue.
Much has already been made of “Kisses”‘ insipid songwriting (quite rightly), but “Chained to a Cloud” is hardly any better in the way it retreads “Shanty”‘s palette for diminishing returns and paltry vocal melodies. Vocally, this is by far the most underwhelming Slowdive release since Just for a Day: Halstead and Goswell’s knack for soaring hooks and breathtaking harmonies is very thinly represented across the board, and there’s something Yo La Tengo-ish about Halstead’s delivery on “Andalucia Plays” that inherits little of the former’s gawkish charm and all of their inadvertent weariness.
This trend is somewhat bucked on the late highlight “Skin in the Game”, which does an excellent job of combining crisp acoustics with droning fuzz, amidst which the vocals occupy an intriguingly liminal space. Its hooks, vocal mix and arrangement are disarmingly subtle given nu-Slowdive’s gloss-heavy disposition, and I’d set it just below “Shanty” as the song that will age the best beyond the release cycle.
Song-for-song, the overall standard here is certainly higher than on the 2017 LP or Just for a Day, but I’ll wager that Everything is Alive would attract by far the lowest share of complaints if it were to disappear from Slowdive’s discography overnight, even allowing for time for it to settle with the fanbase: it’s the first Slowdive release to date that scans as largely generative from past material, and its innovations are too few and too modest to compete with that aftertaste. Out of all this, closer “The Slab” sets clatters and croons as though it hopes to conjure a momentous final statement – the upshot is more a propulsive misfire.
Please post all of your thoughts about the band Slowdive (great band!) in the comments immediately!
…and let me know who I should cover next!