Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Slowdive - Pygmalion


Released 1995 on Creation
Reviewed by Rust Phimister, 20/12/2008ce

Slowdive are what I like to call a 'blank-look band'. Y'know, you're at a party with friends, sitting around with beers and too much pot, talking pretentiously about music, and someone asks what your favourite album of the nineties is (among other world-defining subjects). You say Pygmalion by Slowdive and your friends frown mildly and say 'what by who?'. Then someone puts on 'Karma Police' by Radiohead or some mindless sludge by Muse, all your friends all cry 'All right!' in unison and leap up to start swaying drunkenly in a dazed parody of dancing. And you're left to wonder how it is possible for these people not to know who Slowdive were.

Not that it's surprising. Slowdive belonged to that much-maligned musical current of the early nineties that was shoegazer. Like their contemporaries, they blended soaring, effects-drenched guitars with swirling keyboards and inaudible lyrics that created dream-like aural universes possibly best appreciated when going though a heroin come-down. The press hated them. They were called pretentious, charm-less poseurs. It's actually possible that much of this was backlash from My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, the album that defined shoegazer, but ultimately was it's undoing as Kevin Shields and co. needed 18 engineers and 250 000 pounds to make the album, just the kind of excess and perfectionism that was seen as totally anti-rock in the early nineties of grunge and brit-pop.

In truth, everything about shoegazer to me is the epitome of rock: it's nerdy, introverted, and so fucking loud! It's also the only genre of the day, apart from grunge to really tap into that particular vein of angst that characterised the youth of the day. What the grungers expressed via ragged guitars and unkempt rage, the shoegazers translated into mournful, melancholic guitar drowning out ghostly voices strangled by emotion. 15 years on, shoegazer sounds more relevant than anything that appeared in it's wake, as evidenced by the recent recrudescence of similar guitar noise and stoned-out vocals.

Slowdive were definitely no strangers to the singular middle-class pathos of the time, as evidenced on their seminal and genre-defining opus Souvlaki, from 1993. But the music press of the time savaged them each and every time. Sensing a change of trends towards the emerging brit-pop movement and it's beer-drenched, oafish, unimaginative Beatles rip-offs, label owner Alan McGee had grown disinterested in the likes of Slowdive. 1994 saw them forced to finance part of an American tour out of their own pocket. Realising they were about to be dropped by McGee, the band's two leaders Neil Halsted and Rachel Goswell decided to make an album as introverted and un-commercial as possible. They succeeded in producing a masterpiece.

Be warned, Pygmalion is oblique beyond description. Slowdive distilled the expansive aural atmospheres of Souvlaki to perfection. Immersing himself in techno music, Halstead incorporated the vocal, synth and guitar loops, double-tracking and digital effects of that genre, but you sure as shit can't dance to it! But it single-handedly gave a much-needed facelift to ambient pop, paving the way for Sigur Ros, Boards of Canada and Labradford, and freed up the band to create scintillating atmospheric soundscapes that were as disturbing and sombre as they were hypnotic and catchy.

My frustration at this album's anonymity knows no bounds, because from my very first listen of the very first track, 'Rutti', I was entranced. It sounds like an outtake from Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden, with it's hypnotic guitar, slight percussion and echo-drenched voice. But far from Mark Hollis' cries of hope and redemption, this is sparse, morose and deliberately sombre. It builds up layer-upon-layer of whispery sound, leaving the listener on a knife's edge, expecting an explosion of chorus and noise (à la Talk Talk). Instead, it just… doesn't. It continues to swirl, creating a trance-like atmosphere of veiled emotion and subdued paranoïa. It's the sound you get in your head at the end of a long night spent on too much music and too much coke. 'Rutti' sets the tone: there is no light, just dark, scattered noises and ghostly, haunted voices. Occasionally, rays of blinding sunlight pierce the veil of darkness and dust, as on the luminous 'Crazy for you', before we're dragged back into some psychic abyss or into a dark, sparsely furnished bed-sit somewhere in the London suburbs.

It all comes to a head on the deliriously beautiful 'Blue Skied an' Clear', the sort of song that most of us can only dream of writing. Like all of Pygmalion, it builds up slowly, trancelike, gloomy and obtuse. Then suddenly (as sudden as a quiet ripple of water, mind), it bursts into a surge of synthesizer, and Rachel Goswell can be heard chanting mournfully before Halstead joins in with a desolate, world-weary hymn to the lost cause that was the ecstasy generation. The whole song soars to the heavens, a heart-rending nocturne of the aimlessness of the nineties, the decade when we realized hippy values were dead for good, that our parents had become reactionaries and that there was really no way out. That's the crux of Pygmalion: with it's dance influences, druggy atmosphere and listlessness, it's the perfect incarnation of disaffected nineties youth, as powerful and as fatalistic as anything by Nirvana, Depeche Mode or Alice in Chains. It's the soundtrack to drugs, drink, emotional withdrawal and too much soulless money, and it's the only one that really captures those elements to perfection.

Not that anyone got that. The press hammered it, so the public ignored it. Pygmalion became Alan McGee's excuse to drop Slowdive, who promptly split, Halstead and Goswell going on to form Mojave 3. Luckily someone thought to take the time out to re-release this shimmering, cryptic masterpiece. It stands as one of the few albums that ever really "got" my generation, and encapsulated our spirit in 48 oh so short minutes. Thank you Slowdive!

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