Album Review: Slowdive – everything is alive

[Dead Oceans; 2023]

Culture has become so accustomed to romanticising the idea of musicians as idols that the harsh reality of the grind of actually living the process of it is completely distorted. Traveling might be nice, but on tour it is coupled with very little sleep and unpleasant transit conditions, alcohol (or drugs) and loud environments where an audience is reacting to every minute detail of performance. Along for the ride are people that often have become friends at an age characterised by immaturity and lack of experience. Money runs low, especially if merchandise won’t sell, and muscles harden. Many bands don’t survive their first big tour, or the sophomore album cycle, where clarity sets in that a unit is shattering into pieces. It’s a bit of a miracle when a band survives the hardships of the music business industrial complex – and even rarer if, against all odds, the story of defeat turns into mythology of rebirth.

Slowdive have a history as long and obscure as any former rock giant that now residents in mythological spheres of hushed retellings ’round a fireplace. Even a brief rundown sounds like an odd fairytale: instantly canonised with their opening EPs, then shredded by the British music press and later abandoned by their American label, surviving romantic and professional breakups, shelving entire records and finally disassembling, only to then garner cult status among younger audiences and finally selling out venues of any size in the matter of hours upon their reunion. There’s so many bizarre details in all this, so many hiccups that would mean the definitive end of any other band – or at least commercial failure upon attempting a second try. Maybe it’s just luck – or, more likely – magic at work. But Slowdive are still with us, roughly a decade after their initial reunion concerts, presenting their fifth album. This alone – a miracle of sorts – deserves celebration.

everything is alive drops at a point when shoegaze is more profitable than ever before. Earlier this year, I called out the ‘Summer of Shoegaze’ in light of the hype generated around up-and-coming bands such as They Are Gutting A Body Of Water, motifs and Full Body 2, as well as ongoing reissue campaigns and newfound interest in groups like Drop Nineteens or Majesty Crush. What my own research as well as the broader illumination of the genre brought to light is that most available perspectives on the genre are just formed by the three (or so) most popular British releases of the time, misunderstanding or dismissing anything that expands what shoegaze can be as, erhm, ‘not shoegaze’. This disservice to the creativity and malleability of these bands is vanishing with time, and everything is alive might well be a watershed moment for the genre, both reconnecting with the last decade and boldly moving forward into uncharted territory.

This is embodied by a bold divergence in the album’s sound. On one side stand softer jangle-adjacent tracks like “kisses” and “alife”, which could have fit on Wild Nothing’s Nocturne and represent a sound present early into the 2010s. The other side sports a bold exploration into progressive territory with Depeche Mode-adjacent synthesiser tones and Cyberpunk-like sound proportions, such as on opener “shanty” and “chained to a cloud”. This makes for a strange divergence, between chromatic neon surfaces and suburban idyll, krautrock ambience and new wave romanticism, in a way that no other shoegaze record has achieved. Even when distantly related to All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors or The Horrors, it still possesses an identity all of its own that distances itself from comparison points.

“shanty” is a very interesting example for this: initially, it almost seems to mirror Depeche Mode’s gloomy “My Cosmos Is Mine” from earlier this year, but then introduces the characteristic guitar swathes, clever and loose drumming and charismatic bass playing, which slowly expand the claustrophobic intro a sonic landscape. “skin in the game” feels almost artificially processed thanks to its electronic drum beat and odd layering of Neil Halstead’s voice during the refrain, which gives it a somewhat robotic quality, while also using echoing effects in an almost surgical manner to produce multiple levels of detailed melodic interplay which, again, produces a strange naturalism within an environment that seems virtually generated. As if watching a simulation become self aware, there’s a climactic development to the tones that’s strangely alien, yet deeply emotional. “chained to a cloud” uses echoing vocals effectively to suggest the passing of time, while the leading keyboard melody brings a childlike nuance with its simplicity, marching forward and always repeating – strangely enough, it’s possibly the most melancholic song on everything is alive, as Halstead and Rachel Goswell seem irreversibly divided, their voices occupying different spaces altogether. 

Both Goswell and drummer Simon Scott lost family members during the creation period of their fifth album. This reflects in an aura of absence, of longing and introspection that marks the emotional core of everything is alive. Both instrumentals “prayer remembered” and “andalucia plays” – painfully beautiful pieces – return to the band’s ambient experiments of “Avalyn”, “Rutti” and the boundary pushing 5EP. They’re also similar in tone to “Promenade” and “4th of July” off The Unforgettable Fire – an album too often ignored in light of U2’s more rousing (or their many trashy) outings. The likeness is less due to Bono and more in Brian Eno’s characteristic exploration of sonic space as an intimate yet vast proportion. Especially the “Here She Comes”-reminiscent “andalucia plays”, in all its nostalgic glory, works brilliantly well at connecting emotionally, evading kitsch thanks to Halstead’s dry vocal layering.

In contrast, lead single “kisses” almost seems minimalist: its straightforward, jangly composition and sexy attitude make it a perfect radio hit, cleverly developing loud/quiet dynamics and proving that Halstead and Goswell harmonising is still the band’s most effective weapon. “alife” goes for an even more nocturnal energy, which it effortlessly embraces. There’s a hint of 80s film noir here, embodied by Yello’s “Desire”, that is very hard to find these days. And if that doesn’t sound like the band are treading new ground, then “the slab” punches a hole into the expectations the rest of the record has set: the five minute long closer is a heavy, almost My Bloody Valentine adjacent rocker that stands as one of the loudest, and most massive pieces of music Slowdive have composed. Dark and angry, it’s an odd – but necessary – choice to leave the album on.

Where their self-titled fourth album saw them compose themselves as a unit and combine the qualities of their previous work into a coherent and mature whole, everything is alive announces that Slowdive – and shoegaze as a genre – are part of a developmental process. The five-piece seem to always have started their writing process with the questions ‘why continue, and where to?’ in the past, often contradicting how the public perceived their persona and highlighting interests in more abstract contemporaries. Here, they constantly interrogate their own humanity – by factoring in elements of digital processing and disembodiment – as well as memory as temporal space. Things only ever happen in hindsight, human voices blur into disfigured recordings. There’s distances between protagonists, as they flee in cars or choose silence in favour of expressing themselves. The majesty comes with the myths that bloom through time, and our own knowledge of presence, even when the music’s over. Hard to categorise, and impossible to assess immediately, like all of Slowdive, everything is alive will ever blossom with time.