Two really important things upfront:
1. This is not a perfect album.
2. It is, however, well-deserving of its canonized status because no other album sounds anything like this one. No, not in Slowdive’s discography, because Just For A Day was a lot guitar-ier than this, and Pygmalion that follows is a Mojave 3 album masquerading as a Slowdive one. You get the feeling that the folks who bring My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless in comparison are doing so out of obligation than anything else—understandable, because they’re the two biggest shoegaze albums by the two biggest shoegaze acts. I’d argue that they’re completely different beasts; here, the noise requisite of shoegaze is used only for atmosphere. While others have likenedLoveless to ecstasy, but to me, Souvlaki is the soundtrack to a sunny, Saturday afternoon on mushrooms. Like the band set out to record what they saw through sound.
That being said, “Alison” is fucking perfect, but you probably already knew that. If you didn’t, go listen to it immediately. Do your best to follow Neil Halstead’s opening command, “Listen close and don’t be stoned,” and pay attention to the tiny details. Listen to the way the single guitar note that breaks through after “Alison, I’m lost” (see the 0:55 mark for the first time), grabs our hand and leads us into the chorus after and Simon Scott’s understated drumfills underneath it (the guy also does some magical things after the second chorus). Listen to the tension building measure that bridges the first chorus and the second verse, or the instrumental outro, how when a second guitar’s melody materializes, the first guitar’s wall of noise feels like it transforms into a choir of angels; describing shoegaze is perhaps the only time pedestrian poetry works at all. And on the long list of songs with lyrics that try to capture the happenings of psychedelics, “Alison” is easily the best, with lines like “The sailors, they strike poses / (on) TV-colored walls,” and “Your only sister’s spinning / But she lies, tells me she’s just fine.” With track titles elsewhere like “Machine Gun” and “Dagger,” you’d think these guys are depressed, but “Alison”’s lyrics never settle for simple melodramatise, but vie for a beautiful, rare optimism instead, “There’s nothing here but that’s okay,” “With your talking and your pills / Your messed-up life still thrills me,” and “Alison, I said we’re sinking / But you laugh and tells me it’s just fine.”
Unfortunately, something else you should know immediately is that nothing else on Souvlaki hits like “Alison” does. There are other standouts for sure—and I’ll get to them momentarily—but the band seem either incapable or disinterested in recapturing “Alison”’s magic. For one thing, the band aren’t the world’s greatest melodists (to say the least). Actually, that description extends to all of the shoegazers in the world, a cadre of people who dreamt of being musicians ever since their parents first played the Beatles to them, but lacked the melodic capacity to really do so. That is, until they figured out that they could hide that fact in guitar noise and cartoonish dollar signs replaced their pupils. On eight of the ten tracks, vocals take a backseat to the atmosphere, whereas they were on even grounds on “Alison.” You’d need a lyric sheet or babel fish to figure out what Neil Halstead or Rachel Goswell are singing. But unlike the Liz Fraser’s or Fraser-lites (think: Harriet Wheeler) of the world, you get the sense that the vocalists of Slowdive aren’t defiantly singing in their own way, but rather diffidently doing so.
But tiny bits still break through and those are the lyrics you should be paying attention to. “Machine Gun,” despite its dark title and dark lyrics, Goswell’s “Just the weight of the water, drags me down, again” and Halstead’s repeated “I saw him drown,” is surprisingly bright-sounding. Goswell’s high-pitched voice (who, after a quick jaunt on Google images, I’m convinced is my future wife; don’t judge her onSouvlaki’s cover alone) juxtaposes wonderfully with Neilstead’s lower vocals. Meanwhile, each of the previously mentioned lyrics are followed immediately by “Alison”-type optimism, Goswell’s “Guess I’ll think of the water, it’s my friend, oh, yeah” and Halstead’s “It’s all I need, yeah.” From the title and the lyrics of “Machine Gun,” I’m guessing the folks at Portishead were inspired to make the back-to-back “Deep Water” and their very own “Machine Gun” on Third.
There’s a reason I brought up mushrooms earlier. While tripping on them, it’s practically a sequel to Mission Impossible to do anything at all because you’re so easily distracted by anything. Souvlaki has a similar lethargic vibe to it. Brian Eno, who spent the past decade showing the world that you could make a 60-minute song out of the same few notes (dictionary definition of lazy, if you’d ask me), stops by and teaches the band a thing or two about less-is-more, something they didn’t know for Just For A Day. He co-writes “Sing” and does Eno-esque things on both that and “Here She Comes,” and his contributions allow both to stand out (probably his last useful contribution to the world), and the band would later use those as templates for Pygmalion. Listen to the keyboards-like-raindrops in the former, or the dubby feel of the latter, the beautiful admission that despite “It’s so lonely in this place” and “It’s so cold now,” the track ends with “I swear it will be warm / Here she comes now.”
Despite the warmth of the guitar noise and lyrics, Souvlaki mostly concerns itself with gloomy, mid-tempo tracks, such that when “Souvlaki Space Station” finally emerges out of its embryonic state, it instantly becomes a standout. Walls of guitars grow more and more chaotic over the album’s most muscular rhythm section (seriously, did bassist Nick Chaplin even do anything on the rest of the album?). Following it is “When the Sun Hits,” an incredibly energetic, upbeat track that bounces from one note to the other. It’s also easy to see why the band failed in the eyes of the public and their label; I thinkJust For A Day was, for the most part, a by-the-trend album. Souvlakicame two years later, after grunge and shoegaze were on their way out, and could care less about either genre. Only “When the Sun Hits” comes complete with dynamic shifts from verse to chorus that grunge loves so much.
“Altogether” uses handclaps as percussion, but only for the sake of changing it up; it’s not particularly cool to handclap along with it. “Melon Yellow,” that follows, makes prominent use a swirling “s”-sound that pushes to subsequent measures that I can’t tell for the life of me is being generated by a guitar or hi-hat. That, in itself, is sort of magical—that it doesn’t allow itself to be deconstructed. Finally, I had originally said that vocals weren’t dominant in eight of out ten of these tracks. “Dagger” is the other, where the spotlight rests on Halstead’s voice and acoustic guitar. But even that is simplifying matters; there’s the ever-so-slight harmonies that bring out the track’s many great lines. Meanwhile, I had originally thought in my initial playthroughs that the random piano ping that opens the track and is thrown away immediately afterwards was useless, but if you listen closely, that same piano materializes itself later, and helps add an extra bit of atmosphere to the skeletal track.
Sun breaking through clouds and cigarette smoke curling over your shoulder.