Jonas Bjerre’s voice has always been surreal. The frontman and singer for Danish art rock band Mew has a keen ability to sound even more ethereal than Jónsi himself, the king of European falsettos. He opts for delicate, airy notes amidst Mew’s harsher rock. Even as the throes of No More Stories’ “Repeaterbeater” slam with catastrophic force or And The Glass-Handed Kites’ “Why Are You Looking Grave?” rolls into shoegaze, Bjerre holds destruction at bay with his frail, thin vocals, pinching the guitars between his thumb and middle finger, shaking them until they begin to look like rubber. While the band’s bizarre version of melodic prog rock has always suited them, Bjerre’s vocals appear misplaced. Don’t misread this. They make the contrast work in their favor, but Bjerre could quickly join another band where his sound is more suitable, more emphasized, and more decorated. When you’re following a six-year silence, there’s pressure pointed at you from all directions, so Mew rebooted until they found the equilibrium of the planet, particularly the interconnectivity between water and air, two forms of life which his voice has continually emulated since the band formed in 1994.
In the six years separating 2009’s No More Stories Are Told Today, I’m Sorry They Washed Away // No More Stories, The World is Grey, I’m Tired, Let’s Wash Away from this year’s + – (an equally enigmatic but less exhaustive title), Mew has shifted from melodic alt rock into a more pop-oriented territory. Here, they find a new zone where Bjerre can fly calmly as stadium-style instrumentals cushion him. Much of it sounds like a long journey down a river, but with the occasional bumps and bruises of uptempo rock.
Bassist Johan Wohlert rejoined the band halfway through the album’s writing process. No longer a trio, Mew went out on tour while writing, too, a decision that led towards calcifying their progress and shaving off new angles that didn’t work. That break from total immersion keeps Mew from investing wholeheartedly in another concept album. It’s disassociation done well. Mew may have a hand on reality in + –, but the songs float as if they’ve escaped the folds of gravity altogether.
It all hinges on order, and that order begins with lead single “Satellites”. Harp-like strumming bubbles up delicately, and joined by Bjerre’s vocals, swirls into pastel clouds. This is a version of Mew that shies away from syncopation and dissonance. Instead, they’re straightforward: The lyrics are direct, the sound is fragile, the drumming is simple. Once the song breaks post-chorus, Bjerre’s quiet gasps pierce the background like he’s running to their own rhythm, chugging alongside the guitars. Bjerre is surrounded by the delicacies of pop songwriting and gentle mixing. His voice, at last, matches the mood completely.
The rest of the album fully embraces the prog-gone-pop route. The opening riff of “My Complications” is laced with the sugary coyness of ‘90s-era Mandy Moore. Mew pushes it to the side when the bass comes in, getting darker and more mysterious thanks to Bloc Party guitarist Russell Lissack, before Bjerre’s vocals revert the settings to a place where dream-like keys glitter across it all. The mixture shouldn’t work. “Interview the Girls” is nothing but cheery lyrics wiping at a dirty windowpane to let the sunshine in. It’s there in the sedative superbowl jam “Water Slides”, too, where Kimbra joins them for vocal harmonies that jump like a mirror image of Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble”. These conflicting elements in the music feel scattered, but Mew, as always, make it sound so right. Call it confidence or call it naivety — Mew still hold the indie stadium genre to their name, even as their songs smile with downturned edges.
With grander production and spacious echoes, + – is Mew’s most calming take on stadium anthems. “Clinging to a Bad Dream”, the album’s creative peak, begins with street sounds and the occasional chirping bird. Warm Caribbean rhythms trickle in quietly on guitar, an unassuming intro that merges Bjerre’s airy vocals with the water-like flow of the record. A flash of heat cracks and Mew explode, chopping the song up into emotionally-driven notes and sporadic percussion, growing rowdier before culminating in an outro of uplifting reverb. It’s a song that uses space to its advantage. Even “Rows”, in nearly 11 minutes, swells gratuitously, turning anthem rock on its back and showing it the beauty of a starry night. Sure, they fall into routine on “Witness”, a brawny ripple of energetic rock that chases an unrelenting beast, nodding to their past sound. Later, they snap back to their poppier version, treading in the extremes of crystalline transcendence and celestial flutters.
The lush landscapes come and go smoothly, but a good number fade quickly from the mind. “The Night Believer” tip toes over the line into campy territory no matter how sweet Kimbra’s lines are. “Making Friends” unravels after a mere minute, slopping around with a funk riff that gets blown out in a chorus of cymbal crashes and bland synths. Regardless, it’s clear the new album feels comfortable to the Danish quartet. Within its grooves and rigid time signatures comes a gentle raising of Bjerre’s vocals — the move Mew have been waiting to take for a while and are finally executing in a way that makes sense.
Essential Tracks: “My Complications”, “Clinging to a Bad Dream”, and “Witness”