Holding Our Breath: Thoughts On Slowdive

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It’s summer in North Carolina, a time of blistering vinyl car seats and miserable street-corner dogs with lolling tongues, of heat shimmering from the pavement in desert-like waves while the local pools are swarmed with howling children desperate to immerse themselves in the cool relief of chlorinated water for a scant couple of hours. We’ve already passed that golden zenith of American summer, Independence Day, with its sulphur fumes of spent fireworks and its charcoal grilles aflame with burgers and hot dogs. This is a Southern summer, where fireflies are a moving blanket of living beacons at the twilight hours, and where cats pull birds from the sky from the lurking safety of overgrown weeds.

Summer is also a good time to sprawl back in your splintered deck chair and bliss out to the druggy, kaleidoscopic swirls of shoegaze. Most of those heady veterans of The Scene That Celebrates Itself somehow seem designed for exclusive summer listening, for trees filtered with stabs of sunlight and oceans pulsing warmly along sandy shores. Now that so many of these bands are giving the reunion circuit a go, it’s especially thrilling to consider the implications of many potential summers (and all seasons) filled with reconstituted shoegazing goodness to follow.

One of the most exciting and unexpected recent reformations has been that of the Thames Valley five-piece Slowdive, criminally under-appreciated in their day, and only now gaining recognition for a very simple, often overlooked fact, that they were the best and most consistent band of this weird, brief era of underground music history. My Bloody Valentine may have paved the way with their label-bankrupting innovation, and Chapterhouse, Lush, Ride and others may have contributed their own minor masterworks to the movement, but Slowdive arguably remains the band that had the final word on the genre, and best represented its forward-thinking methodology.

Why Slowdive? Well, Slowdive still sound remarkably different than their peers, to the point that they’re utterly unique in tone and vision, rendering them hardly part of the Cult of Shoegaze at all. The genre does indeed make for a great summer vacation soundtrack, but Slowdive always sounded more autumnal to me, conjuring biting breezes through leaf-stripped trees and frozen ponds in beige meadows rather than palatial summer expanses. Perhaps it was that whistling sense of space to their music, that airy breathiness that painted them the perfectly sad mirror of dream-pop. It’s all there in the soul-bruising harmonies of guitarists Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead, melancholy and woozy. It’s there in the echoey taffy-stretched passages of guitars and synths, the drums that sound as if they were tracked live in an abandoned steel mill, reverberating through dark chasms forever.

Beneath that breezy swell was an ocean’s undercurrent of wailing feedback and noise, a ghost trapped in a room and unable to leave, always pushing at the boundaries of these songs. On both the underrated Just For A Day and its classic Eno-assisted followup Souvlaki, there are unexpected codas and outros to these labyrinthian laments of longing. They rise with yearning and fade unexpectedly, all too soon, leaving you begging for them to come back and stay a while longer. The lyrics, though buried in this era’s fashion, often emanate with the implied violence of frustrated lust and vanished love. They weep of getting on with things, of pressing forward, while continuing to be haunted by the past that birthed them. Slowdive’s music is a collection of frozen moments that seem to last eternally.

The media backlash against shoegaze (and Slowdive especially) as grunge and Britpop’s star began to rise seems especially harsh and short-sighted in light of these retrospective musings. Prior to publishing a scathing review, a Melody Maker scribe told the band that they would be “backstage help this time next year”. Soon came entropy, fragmentation. Slowdive went out with a flourish, though, as their final album Pygmalion whirred past shoegaze’s fences into electronic and fledging post-rock territory. Goswell and Halstead would continue in the spectral folk tradition with Mojave 3, another under-appreciated project. Over time, Slowdive emerged from the hazy recollections of non-Shieldsian shoegaze artists to be appreciated for what they were: innovators, sonic adventurers, and deeply compelling songcrafters. Listening to their work now is a window into that short-lived halcyon time when the most daring of experimental music was also ‘pop’.

This reunion, in light of their still-growing legacy, is in itself a substantial victory, and if any new music arises out of the regrouping, I trust it would continue this band’s envelope-pushing tradition. Slowdive always seemed cut down brutally in their infancy; a wealth of demos of unreleased tracks attest to the masterpieces they never got around to committing to tape, and I’m more than curious to see what’s next for them after the blinding glow of this well-earned rebanding dims down. Meanwhile, I’m going to tune out the summer, catch the breeze, and wait for fall’s cooling hands as Slowdive buries the season and lifts me away. (Zachary Corsa)

 

 

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