Review Summary: Are You Still on Their Good Side?
“Not long for me, for you see the dreamers have all grown” Mew vocalist Jonas Bjerre croons at the end of 2009’s No More Stories. The six year gap between that previous record and Mew’s latest record, +/- seemed to give that line an ominous weight. The dream pop prodigies always seemed to tap into an almost transcendental vein of beauty that imitators could never quite capture. While the band always stated their clear intention of releasing a new record and provided new material leading up through the years until it finally materialized, fans could never be sure if the magic captured in such tracks as “Comforting Sounds” and “The Zookeeper’s Boy” could be rekindled.
The odds certainly seemed to be in Mew’s favor. Bassist Johan Wohlert, absent for the recording of No More Stories, had returned for this new record and began to perform live for the touring cycle leading up to its release. In addition, the lead single, “Satellites” (then titled “Klassen”), was being performed live as far back as 2012, giving the songs quite a bit of time to marinate and form to their fullest potential. As if to heighten the bar further, guest musicians Kimbra and Bloc Party guitarist Russell Lissack were brought on board for songwriting and performing duties. For these reasons, hopes were high and excuses were low for the well-loved Danish quartet.
On the first listen of +/-, it becomes immediately apparent that a shift has taken place toward more contemporary and digestible songwriting. While No More Stories began the push toward more pop-oriented tracks, songs such as “The Night Believer” seem a far cry from the thunderous and progressive …And The Glass Handed Kites. A brief, shining moment of wildly varied time signatures and oddball originality appears in “Clinging To A Bad Dream”, which establishes itself as a highlight of the album as it deftly jumps through musical anomalies and end with some beautiful choral vocals from Bjerre. Another bright spot is the inventive “Making Friends”, which was released in a very similar iteration as a free download long before the album release. The trend of upbeat pop, however continues throughout most of the album, particularly in those tracks featuring collaborators. These songs are inherently bubbly and catchy, but may come off as saccharine from the musicians that came up with such somber slow-burners as” Silas The Magic Car”. The album is perhaps at its best, then, when it blends this pop sensibility with the emotional poignancy that Mew is known for. “Water Slides” shows the band explore darker territory with a vocal hook strongly reminiscent of Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble”. The track explores an area of pop bliss that has never been fully excavated by the band before, and their adventurousness pays off in spades. “Such a long time, I didn’t know if I’d find you” sings Bjerre, contrasting the dark atmosphere with cautiously hopeful lyricism. This complexity in theme mirrors the complexity in orchestration of Mew’s earlier work. It’s moments like the chorus of this track that make the listener forgive the lack of obtuseness on display.
After eight tracks and directly following the sugary, soaring “Interview The Girls”, the lack of progressive, engaging material (aside from “Clinging To A Bad Dream”) may be off-putting to longtime fans. Perhaps to make up for this perceived weakness, the 11-minute prog opus “Rows” begins. The centerpiece of the album (and perhaps the reason for its desperately short length), “Rows” is a long journey through strange landscapes and exploding into a bursting crescendo reminiscent of “Cartoons and Macrame Wounds”. Sharp guitar from Bo Madsen carries us through its early stages up until the peak of Bjerre’s performance. An outpour of emotion carries the line “Draw me a rainbow to signify loving eyes” and draws the bulk of the song to a close. The length is extended by a bizarre synthesized outro that is wholly Mew, but does seem to stretch a song that has already dwindled to satisfying conclusion. After such a significant moment on the record, the closer which follows has desperately large shoes to fill.
And fill these shoes it does. “Cross The River On Your Own” is a beautiful, soaring moment that is perhaps the best Mew track since Frengers closer “Comforting Sounds”. “You’ll be good to me, and I’ll be good to you” sings Bjerre in a heartbreaking tone, bringing us back down to earthly affairs for the subject of the track. Simple relationship songs are either unheard of or convoluted to the point of obfuscation for Mew, but “Cross The River On Your Own” makes a somewhat straightforward and tired topic entirely fresh, bathed in Bjerre’s fragile, youthful timbre. Emotional peaks splinter out of the song in high-pitched refrains of “I’m off to work, but I don’t see you” at multiple points in the song, highlighted by tender, spacey guitars vaguely reminiscent of American Football fare. A brief key change in the bridge keeps the song interesting and introduces an avant garde element before stretching itself back into the same mould for one final mourning, gorgeous chorus incorporating elements from each section previous, revisiting the best vocal melodies and moments from an already monumentally beautiful ending to a winding journey of a record.
While the shift toward a somewhat more marketable iteration of the Mew sound may alienate some longtime fans of the group, every moment that either camp would find offensive is countered by a shining moment of the other faction’s affinity. It’s a testament to Mew’s versatility that they can please both hardcore fans and casual listeners alike, and while they may lose a part of their telltale originality along the way, +/- is still a fantastic addition to the band’s very strong discography. It seems, then, that the “dreamers” may have indeed grown, but are all the better for it.
Cross The River On Your Own