Music Against Panic

Slowdive’s Everything is Alive

The new Slowdive album Everything is Alive plays havoc with our sense of history.

Ambient is reassuring. Slowdive, Oakland.

If the band’s eponymous 2017 comeback album made it clear that Slowdive could still deliver the subdued, languid music of their early years, the new record takes that resurgence to another level.

This is the Slowdive of their 1994 Brian Eno-produced masterpiece Souvlaki, only with the benefit of hindsight, informed by the music of all the bands they have influenced.

They sound more like themselves than they ever did because they sound like more than themselves.

We still hear the shoegaze aesthetic with which Slowdive will forever be identified, but through a sonic palimpsest of the trip-hop, darkwave, and ambient subgenres for which it laid a conceptual foundation.

In the process, Everything is Alive helps us to hear their music from the early 1990s from a new perspective.

Given the high regard in which Souvlaki is now held, it’s hard to believe that the record was considered a disappointment by many people in the wake of the album’s release.

The record was too subtle for a world in which the high-contrast sound of Britpop and American alternative rock was dominant.

In that context, more dynamic shoegaze bands like Ride, Swervedriver, and the legendary My Bloody Valentine made more sense.

Slowdive felt like a dead branch of the evolutionary tree.

The Reading band has always followed in the footsteps of groups which, while well-known and critically lauded, never quite attained mainstream success, in part because they didn’t make spectacles of themselves.

Over the past decade, however, the rapid international growth of the Doomer aesthetic has made Souvlaki’s willful mutedness seem fecund, its reluctance to provide the satisfactions of traditional rock and roll a harbinger of the future.

Everything is Alive represents the culmination of this revisionist transformation.

The exquisite restraint for which the band has been celebrated remains fully in effect. Only now, it stretches over a broader palette.

There are nods to the electronic music of the 1970s, such as the echo-drenched pulses on opening track “shanty”, which split the difference between Wendy Carlos and Kraftwerk, and the cascading Mike Oldfield arpeggios of “alife”.

Keyboards feature more prominently overall, recalling the immersive, shimmering post-punk of mid-career Cure albums like Disintegration. This aspect of the album is particularly prominent on the instrumental “prayer remembered” and “skin in the game”.

On “kisses”, the closest thing to a single, Slowdive demonstrate that darkwave can drift into pop without losing the pervasive sense of melancholy that gives it purpose.

Drummer Simon Scott pulls off a Mick Fleetwood, giving his kit the solidity of a metronome without losing its soul. Perhaps most impressive is his facility for recreating the complex rhythms for which the band’s musical descendants typically use presets.

Above all else, what makes Everything is Alive stand out is its vigorous confirmation that Slowdive were right all along to prefer density over drama.

This is music that sounds equally good when blasted out of speakers and turned down to a background whisper.

In this regard, Slowdive resemble My Bloody Valentine, whose famously loud performances retained a delicacy amid the din.

The difference with Slowdive is that the band rarely feels the need to get that extreme. Instead of pummeling listeners with a wall of noise, like water going over Niagra Falls, they are content to let their music burble along like a mountain stream.

You have to slow down and tilt your head into their sound to appreciate its nuances. But the more you do, the more variety you are able to make out.

Although Everything is Alive is not political music by any stretch of the imagination, it responds to a period of rising panic in a way that provides solace and sustenance.

At a time when polarising forces are running rampant, and the media we consume mirror their impact on us like a distorted, fun-house mirror, we need culture that gives us time to catch our breath and reflect.

Slowdive’s dogged refusal to turn up the contrast, their insistence that we listen for details that a more strident approach would dissolve, teaches a valuable lesson: the gray areas of our world hold a world of information that we cannot afford to lose.

With Everything is Alive, Slowdive joins the small number of bands – Mission of Burma and Dinosaur Jr. come to mind – that managed to double down on a strong comeback record, proving that they weren’t just trying to cash in on the nostalgia of their original audience.

Slowdive have never sounded better.

Photograph courtesy of Aaron Rubin. Published under a Creative Commons license.