Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Slowdive - Pygmalion


Slowdive's third and final LP, Pygmalion, is a difficult one to classify. While many critics feel it's a step back from their titanic LP Souvlaki, fans of the record feel it is the pinnacle of their career; the natural progression of a fledgling band maturing gracefully from the sometimes-whimsical, sometimes-sappy dream pop of 1991s Just for a Day, to the genre-defining Souvlaki, and arriving at a sound that is uniquely their own. At the time of its release, the vast majority of Slowdive fans waiting to hear Souvlaki Part Two regarded the release of Pygmalion as the former, which ultimately reflected in the album's sales. Within a week of Pygmalion's release, the band was dropped from Creation Records, ultimately resulting in the group disbanding. 

Founders Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell were in a relationship throughout their musical career, and the rumoured tension that arose between them after the release of Souvlaki is quite evident in the themes present in Pygmalion. Souvlaki can be seen as a celebration of sorts with tunes that (ironically) gaze skyward like "Souvlaki Space Station" and "When the Sun Hits" and is a landscape achievement of the 'scene that celebrates itself'. Pygmalion, in contrast, is significantly more introspective, standing as a drug-induced haze of depression and self-loathing. It is a taxing listen, but one that was ultimately necessary for them, as one can't help but become entranced by the catharsis Halstead and Goswell are shamelessly portraying.

Opening with the staggering (given the brevity of their previous work) 10-minute long "Rutti" Slowdive effectively sets the mood of the album while serving as one of the jaw-dropping highlights. Sparse, ethereal, yet marvellously engaging, "Rutti" defines the minimalist approach that is so masterfully explored on Pygmalion. "Rutti" serves as a perfect contrast to the band's earlier material; while Just for a Day and Souvlaki relied heavily on space-filling barrages of feedback and reverb, Pygmalion takes quite the opposite approach, utilising space and silence to great effect. It is the kind of track that immerses the listener, hypnotic in its gentle chords that rely heavily on reverb. At what can be loosely defined as the "chorus" of the track, simple descending arpeggios syncopate with the guitar lines to create a dizzying effect. The lyrics are indecipherable, but that is largely the point. The strength of "Rutti" and of Pygmalion as a whole, is the concept of the voice as an instrument, merely a component of a larger scheme, that can often invoke more emotion than a well-written lyric.

Following the bleak introduction of "Rutti"comes the gorgeous '"Crazy for You", recalling Slowdive's earlier collaborations with Brian Eno from Souvlaki's "Sing". The structure of this song is relatively simple, relying mainly on a forlorn loop of Halstead singing "Crazy for love." I absolutely love the ambiguity between the title and the lyric; to me, it further reinforces the album's hazy, drugged-out themes of heartbreak. I feel like Halstead is unsure if he's crazy for his love, or just for the idea of love, and it's something that definitely hits home for me. Much of Pygmalion utilises these simple lyrical snippets, never having to rely on verbose expressions to portray a thought or idea. "Miranda" reminds me of Goswell's take on the same idea, and showcases the raw emotion her voice exudes. I do think this track could benefit from a bit more fleshing out (something they have done exceptionally well, see "Miranda" from their Pygmalion Demos), but it does not take away from the album's strength.

"Trellisaze" rounds off side one of Pygmalion on what could be considered a weak note, with a sample reminiscent of a water drop falling in a bucket repeating for the entirety of its six and a half minutes. Cymbals creep up and fade out slowly, becoming slightly out of time in the process. It takes a few listens to really sink in (or, perhaps more accurately, to be able to listen through while resisting the desire to skip to the next track), but ends up being quite rewarding. I personally love this track, as I feel it represents the lowest point of Halstead's emotional state, an almost paranoid psychotic sink into depression.

Side two opens with the incredibly beautiful instrumental interlude "Cello", which segues perfectly into the album's centrepiece "J's Heaven". At just shy of seven minutes, "J's Heaven" represents everything that makes Pygmalion so incredible. Roaring waves of guitar reverb cascade over Goswell and Halstead's poignant observation, "Isn't life small?" A simple underlying guitar melody keeps the track grounded when it feels like everything could crumble apart. At times it is difficult to tell if Goswell or Halstead are singing, as their vocals swirl into one another and fade out sublimely. The instrumentation is flawlessly done, never overbearing, yet always captivating - a stunning masterpiece.

Perhaps my only qualm with Pygmalion is the inclusion of track seven, "Visions of La". At 1:48 long, it feels like a snippet of an idea that was not fully developed. Nothing about it strikes me, though it does serve as an effective barrier between the overwhelming beauty of "J's Heaven" and the following track, "Blue Skied an' Clear", easily one of the band's greatest songs they have ever produced. Given the depressing scope of the album up to this point, "Blue Skied an' Clear" serves as a shining glimmer of optimism. Beginning with a guitar line that is reminiscent of their later work in Mojave 3, this song erupts into an absolutely gorgeous chorus that would be right at home on Souvlaki. To me, this track represents a second chance, or perhaps a reflection upon the remnants of a relationship that was once great. "You say love, and it sounds so good / You say love, and it sounds so sweet," Halstead sings, resulting in an achingly beautiful yet simple sentiment. 

Slowdive has always been able to write a powerful closing track for their albums, and Pygmalion closer "All of Us" is no exception. Bringing us back to a melancholy mood after the gorgeous beauty of "Blue Skied an' Clear", "All of Us" is relatively straight-forward and one of the less effect-laden tracks on the album. To me, this track acts as they come down from the drug-induced state the listener has listened through. A bitter taste of reality, "All of Us" shows Halstead coming to the realisation that relationships (and their conclusions) are the result of our choices. "This whole life / is all of us,” he sings, "This whole dream / is all of me." It is a sobering statement, and a heart-wrenching way to end the album.

Part of me can't help but be disappointed that Pygmalion's release marked the end of Slowdive, but at the same time it seems completely natural. Though this album marks, in my  opinion, the creative pinnacle of Halstead and Goswell (their significantly less interesting follow-up project Mojave 3 and their underwhelming solo material lends evidence to this,) I am glad that Slowdive were able to create a masterpiece and end it at that. Their creative legacy still lives on, with many newer bands in the "nu-gaze" revival of late citing them among their greatest influences. Most importantly though, Pygmalion showcases an amazing band creating an album more out of the necessity of art and expression than pleasing their fans, ultimately resulting in an absolute classic of the 90s.
~Steven Avery

9.4

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