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Holy Hell! Pygmalion Turns 20

Holy Hell! Pygmalion Turns 20

Pygmalion gets short-changed by the newer generation of American indie rock fans, many of whom now look at Souvlaki as a holy shoegaze landmark.

Slowdive is considered one of the premier shoegaze acts of their time, which is a bit confusing. When you read contemporary reviews of their 1993 album Souvlaki, it’s clear that the press had an obvious distaste for the band’s airy, dreamy music. Slowdive had inadvertently come to define shoegaze, but probably not in the way that they wanted. They seemed to embody everything that there was to dislike about shoegaze: their guitar effects masked simple song structures, the breathy vocals of Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell whispered lyrics devoid of any substance or meaning. Now, as shoegaze has been through something of a revival, Souvlaki has become a touchstone, less so for its majesty and more so for serving as a blueprint for younger shoegaze bands to follow. But Slowdive created a better blueprint for music, one that opened as many doors as My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and was something more than just another shoegaze record. While it may have been dismissed in its time, Pygmalion proved to be the masterpiece that few expected Slowdive was capable of, even if it took a few years for everyone to take notice.

A lot of things changed for Slowdive in order to make Pygmalion happen. As 1994 went by, the band was in financial turmoil, having failed to break Souvlaki in the United States. Still, what seemed to weigh on their minds the most was the changing mood at Creation Records. By the time Souvlaki came and went, Creation had left shoegaze behind and bet the house on Alan McGee’s latest discovery, a little band called Oasis. Shoegaze was on the way out, and Slowdive–particularly Neil Halstead–seemed to know it. However, rather than follow Ride’s attempt to jump on the growing Britpop bandwagon, Halstead opted to do something else entirely. This, in turn, is the secret of the artistic success of Pygmalion: it was an album made by an artist who had absolutely nothing to lose.

It stands diametrically opposed to everything the band had done before. Where Souvlaki had some pretty obvious stabs at a pop audience, nothing about Pygmalion was radio-friendly at all. This is an album that opens with a meandering, skeletal track that has no melody or lyrics; Halstead seems to be vocalizing, barely forming words. Goswell is rarely heard on the album; no one in the band is, apart from Halstead. It’s not quite a solo album, but it’s close to being one in its intimacy. Even at their coldest (particularly “Miranda” and the masterful “J’s Heaven”), the songs envelop you, turning one of the most overwhelming guitar pop bands into bedroom tinkerers. Even the album’s most spacious tracks have a haunting intimacy, as if the listener and Halstead are communicating in some unknowable, unspoken language. It’s an absurd gamble that leads either to genius or madness, and opinion at the time was split down the middle. On the charts, Pygmalion stalled and Slowdive petered out of existence. By any logic, that should have been the end of the story, but Pygmalion survived and thrived well beyond the ‘90s.

Writers like former Pitchfork editor Chris Ott and the BBC’s Wyndham Wallace have accurately pointed out that Pygmalion was influential, but not the way that anyone would have expected. Halstead seemed to take from the electronic elements that were present in the genre’s best works in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but he also brought bits of post-rock into the conversation. (Comparisons between Pygmalion and Talk Talk’s final two masterpieces Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock are not unwarranted.) Moments sound closer to Mogwai than MBV, and you can hear the early inklings of M83 in a song like “Crazy for You,” even as Anthony Gonzalez would reach for greater heights later in his career. While a few of these groups (save for M83) faded away as well, the mere fact that they existed is evidence enough of the album’s far-reaching influence.

Yet, even now, the album gets short-changed by the newer generation of American indie rock fans, many of whom now look at Souvlaki as a holy shoegaze landmark. Pygmalion seems to play second fiddle with fans and critics content to pass it off as the “weird” album by a respected band that people used to not respect all that much. I don’t mean to disparage Souvlaki, which is a fine record, but without Pygmalion, Slowdive become nothing more than also-rans on the level of Lush or Catherine Wheel, forgotten to the sands of time.

Still, listening to Pygmalion now, I find myself drawn to the intimacy of the experience more than anything else. That, after all, was a key component of what shoegaze was supposed to be about: it was a scene of the mind, one built on individual experiences instead of social interaction. That may have been what turned me off of Slowdive personally; it always seemed like they were trying to be a part of something, rather than just giving way to the experience. All it took was for them to leave shoegaze behind to tap into that feeling.

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