A strong, synth-fueled effort from a band that continues to evolve.
Seven albums in and people have a pretty good idea what a Mew album is going to sound like. This time around, though, the Danish alt/prog rock band is minus founding guitarist Bo Madsen. Visuals doesn’t sound too far removed from 2015’s +- and Mew’s hallmark grandiose arrangements, but this album, somewhat understandably, goes lighter on the guitars and ramps up the shimmering celestial synths. Building on the sound of +-, Visuals has synthpop moments galore. Overall, it’s an exhilarating listen, and one that sees the band unafraid to change things up after the potentially major upheaval of losing a core member.
The first thought this album prompts is where are the visuals? With a title like that, you have to back it up. Mew’s music is rich enough to spark a world of mental colors, but frontman Jonas Bjerre’s goal on this album is to make those visuals integral to the music, at least that’s been the case with lead single “85 Videos” and “Twist Quest,” each with colorful, elaborate music videos directed by Bjerre. The former is the source of the kaleidoscopic album cover as well as being a highlight of the album. A rare moment of out front guitars, the track balances a striking line and erupting strums underpinning Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen’s heavy drums and Bjerre’s soaring vocals. “Twist Quest,” on the other hand, is a wilder, fun side of Mew, incorporating syncopated percussion and guitar rhythms, and even horns. The gloriously trippy video continues the vivid visual theme with dancers sporting brilliant bird heads.
Opener “Nothingness and No Regrets” is much more representative of the album, with its twinkling synths and Bjerre’s trademark falsetto. The towering climax of the song lets Jørgensen unleash, threatening to overpower everything but the vocals. And that striking percussion carries into “The Wake of Your Life,” accompanied by uber ’80s hand claps and a starry synth line that’s oddly reminiscent of Ladyhawke. “In a Better Place,” however, features the album’s most joyous synths, separating verses from chorus in a euphoric blitz. The heightened emotions of the music perfectly match the rapturously delivered lyrics, “I am/ Closing my eyes/ Just when I’m supposed to!” “Learn Our Crystals” follows a similar trajectory, adding a playful, picked guitar line, but it can’t match the high that is “In a Better Place.”
Despite these pervasive synths, Mew leave room for callbacks to their slower modes and heavier prog rock leanings. “Shoulders” and “Zanzibar” are languorous, almost like somber lullabies with Bjerre offering up romantic musings. Bassist Johan Wohlert, though, really gets to shine on “Candy Pieces All Smeared Out” and “Ay Ay Ay.” The former is harsh, pitting Bjerre’s angelic voice against deep, aggressive riffs. It’s a dynamic track that has become rarer on Mew’s recent albums. “Ay Ay Ay” begins with a deceptively light guitar line before allowing Wohlert to take over. Its latter half saxophone adds yet another evocative layer to the Visuals soundscape.
Lyrically, Bjerre has always veered towards the abstract, and Visuals is no different. Opening tracks “Nothingness and No Regrets” and “The Wake of Your Life” deal in melancholy that is more concrete than, say, the downright eery lyrics of “Ay Ay Ay,” where Bjerre repeatedly asks in shock, “What’s wrong with his eyes?” “Twist Quest” takes the cake, though, with its fairly incomprehensible chorus “I am a quiet light chaser/ Ain’t I painful?/ It’s already nightfall.” At one point, Bjerre even vocalizes *sigh*. That kind of outlandish lyricism goes hand in hand with Bjerre’s frank, soul-bearing admissions, as on “85 Videos”: “I’m most sincere when I’m talking to strangers/ They somehow appear in my hour of defenselessness.”
For the past decade, Mew has been known to take around four years between albums, and Madsen’s departure seems perfect reason to possibly take even more time. Only taking two years to write and record Visuals certainly leaves the album open for criticism. These 13 tracks, however, dispel any worries about the album being rushed. Nor is it an overhaul of the band’s sound, but a progression towards prog rock infused with more synthpop, following from +-. It may not be the exact Mew fans have come to love, but the album is an undeniable Mew creation and a strong, synth-fueled effort from a band that continues to evolve.