In 2014, when Blonde Redhead released their ninth record Barragán, it felt like a deflation. Here was a band that rose from the alternative scene of the 90s with their punk-influenced take on shoegaze before landing on a shoegaze-influenced take on dream pop. For a few years, they were one of the best spinners of this particular style, most notably on records like Misery is a Butterfly or 23. Their songs were an intoxicating blend of genres, dream-logic lyrics, intricate sound design, and the mix of Kazu Makino’s plaintive voice — which could range from a suggestive murmur to a shocking cry — and Amedeo Pace’s, which was often harsher and more rustic. Together with Pace’s twin brother Simone, the group was an international trio of multi-instrumental misfits.
Then, they dropped Barragán, and ran. While its predecessor Penny Sparkle was unfairly maligned as stagnant, boring, and uninspired, Barragán was actually all of those things. Outside of a couple highlights, the album felt rushed and undercooked, at times even coming off like the band didn’t care enough to fully develop it. And when a band puts out what is almost certainly their worst, or at least limpest, album, and then practically disappears for years, it’s shocking when they then announce a return, and it can be tricky to be terribly optimistic about it.
And yet, here we are with the band’s 10th record. Even the title of the album — Sit Down for Dinner — seems like a slightly funny one, given the intra-band tensions that led to their elongated hiatus and the high stakes of coming back after such a long absence and ill-received LP. But Sit Down for Dinner, for the most part, asserts that the time off did well for Makino and the Pace brothers. In many ways, it feels like the kind of record we all hoped they’d make after Penny Sparkle. It’s full of the glistening, icy, just-left-of-center dream pop and rock that the band are so comfortable with, and while that means it’s not the most exciting or daring thing they’ve done, it is a nice return to form.
Opening with an Amedeo song is a risky maneuver for a band whose most popular songs (think “23” or “Elephant Woman”) are led by Kazu’s distinct tone, but his voice has rarely sounded better than on this record. “Snowman” is a solid opener, establishing a fairly coherent modus operandi for Sit Down For Dinner. Built upon a repeating cycle of guitar chords and percussion, the song takes its time to reach its conclusion, and then, at some point, it does. That sort of thing happens a few times on this record: the songs sound like they could be spun out hypnotically forever, but the band knows they have to stop them at some point. As such, many tracks feel a touch inconclusive, which can be frustrating.
Sit Down for Dinner is partly inspired by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, as well as Makino’s own personal experiences with loss. And though nothing here lands with as much sticky resonance as their past highlights, there are still rewards to reap and gems to find. More than almost any other Blonde Redhead record, Sit Down for Dinner is best when you let it slide over you like fresh sleet.
Makino’s melodies are mostly rather strong, especially on songs like “Kiss Her Kiss Her”, or the fragile, restrained “Rest of Her Life”. But some of the circling, repetitious nature of the songwriting grows a bit tiresome, as on “Before”, whose stiff melody and lyrics can’t carry the stuffy and stale arrangement. “Melody Experiment” is a much better use of this tactic, slowly shifting and developing over its five minutes like we’re watching the band slowly build a sculpture; even so, one’s mileage may vary across 50 minutes of this particular style of patterning and layering sounds and vocals in their trademark twinkling slurries.
The album’s last leg is a soft landing, but mostly strong. Amedeo’s lead on the almost Mazzy Star-like “I Thought You Should Know” is lovely, despite Kazu not even appearing on the track in any capacity. “Via Savona” is a pretty and wordless lullaby, with gentle guitars and wispy pianos — a vast improvement on their last closer.
In fact, the album is so clearly stronger than Barragán in practically every way. That album did, though, at least try something different: it was full of spare arrangements, and brittle guitars, unpredictable songs, and weird ideas. That it was a little half-baked and unsuccessful was a separate issue, and one that Sit Down for Dinner (despite not pushing as aggressively in new directions) doesn’t really repeat. It’s meticulous, deliberate, and considered. Less sleepy than Penny Sparkle but also less vibrant and consistent than 23, it’s the work of a band that took a breather, and came back reassured in who they are. They’re inviting us back in — to their table, no less — and proving that they still deserve our company, and we still ought to seek theirs.