Album Review: Mystery Jets – Serotonin

[Rough Trade; 2010]

The Mystery Jets’ previous release, 2008’s Twenty One, was met with both deserved praise and more than a little disappointment. The album exhibited more of the confident songwriting that prevailed in the band’s well-received debut, Making Dens; at the same time, though, that songwriting played out in the service of rather orthodox dance-rock, marking for many a distressing turn for the conventional from the delightful quirkiness of earlier tracks like “You Can’t Fool Me Dennis” and “Zoo Time.”

So when “Flash a Hungry Smile,” the first single from Serotonin, leaked earlier this year, listeners took notice: the “My Girls”-esque opening of raining synths, the twee whistles, and the charming lyrics about the birds and bees having “all caught STDs” all signaled a return to the weirdness of Making Dens. Finally, a new Mystery Jets song that sounded like the Mystery Jets.

Indeed, “Flash a Hungry Smile” is a highlight of Serotonin. Unfortunately, it’s one of the only tracks that stand out on this catchy but ultimately unfulfilling album.

The problem here is that each of the eleven songs present on the Jets’ third release is catchy, synth-drenched, and nostalgic for the plastic new wave of the 80s. Individually, there isn’t really a bad track here, and once again, lead singer Blaine Harrison and his father Henry prove that they know their way around a pop song. But there are only so many catchy, uptempo pop-rock songs you can listen to consecutively before they start to blend together and create a whole less satisfying than the sum of its parts. Even the lyrics grow dull, and doesn’t help that seemingly every track on the album contains a chorus that simply repeats its respective title: “Too Late to Talk,” “The Girl Is Gone,” “Serotonin,” “Dreaming of Another World,” “Lady Grey,” “Melt,” and album closer “Lorna Doone” all follow what quickly becomes an annoying formula.

Unsurprisingly, the tracks that break from this trend are the album’s best. Opener “Alice Springs,” for instance, is tantalizing in its emotional intensity (sample lyric: “I’d stand in the line of fire for you; I’d bend over backwards for you”). Successfully marrying the Beach Boys’ harmonic intuitions with an anthemic series of singalong hooks, the song exemplifies the band’s talent for molding complicated, often depressing feelings into something enjoyable and even fun. “Flash a Hungry Smile” operates in a similar vein, functioning as the most appropriate choice for the album’s lead single. On “Show Me the Light,” a bouncing bass line, warbling synth strings, and, yes, a cowbell exude an optimistic, over-the-top excitement that lives up to the album’s title—a musical boost of Serotonin. And with its gentle bells and hazy electric guitars, “Dreaming of Another World” doesn’t perform any new musical tricks but at least lives up to the triumphantly “dreamy haze” of which the junior Harrison sings. These songs are lovesick, happy, and desperate, collectively constituting the four-in-the-morning soundtrack to the final drunken dances of a raging party. It’s a move torn straight from the Joy Division playbook, but the Mystery Jets execute it well, dashing in just enough psychedelic details.

But the rest of the album fails to match these standout tracks’ sense of wistful fun, instead content to simply ape their self-conscious superficiality at the cost of any real meaning. Take “Melt,” a song that begins with an ear-catching syncopated beat and gliding synths but quickly veers into anthemic cliches that speak of sending “shivers up my spine” and desires to “melt into you,” spoken to a lover whose sexual influence on the singer hits him like, yep, “a drug.” In many ways, “Melt” encapsulates the worst qualities of Serotonin: redundant lyrics that lack the proper passion to grant them any importance, boring synth lines and guitar riffs, conventional song structure, hooks that sugar the songs to an overabundance of catchy sweetness. It’s a fine song to play at a party, but you won’t uncover anything new upon a closer listen.

There’s nothing wrong with simple, straightforward pop-rock; from the Beatles to Bloc Party, catchy pop has long held a firm place in music listeners’ hearts. But the Mystery Jets debuted with Making Dens, an album with a singularly beguiling and mysterious power that held the band to a standard they’ve had trouble matching ever since. Serotonin isn’t a bad album by any means, but it’s not particularly great, either—and I expect more than adequacy from the Mystery Jets. On “Waiting On A Miracle,” Harrison asks: “Do you ever wonder if the love that you are feeling / Comes from the bottom of your heart or if you’re just dreaming?” Listening to Serotonin, one can’t help but wonder the same thing about the Jets’ appeal: were they ever actually so psychedelically bizarre, or was Making Dens just a dreamlike apparition, a musical vision that can’t be summoned again? Let’s hope it’s the former—Harrison and company have already proven that they’re more talented than this.