The Lowdown: Two years ago in this space, I ended my review of Ride’s mostly triumphant reunion record, Weather Diaries, with the following hunch: “[Weather Diaries] points to even more inventive, invigorated music on a horizon that likely isn’t another two decades away.” Consider that prediction confirmed: after building on the promise of their comeback with 2018’s Tomorrow’s Shore EP, the Oxford shoegaze legends return with This Is Not a Safe Place, which finds them renewing their studio partnership with producer and DJ Erol Alkan.
The Good: Weather Diaries arrived with questions and stakes built up during a 21-year layoff between studio records: chiefly, would Ride be able to recapture and recontextualize the shoegaze magic that had produced stellar latter-day records by contemporaries from Slowdive to My Bloody Valentine? Weather Diaries answered in the affirmative, but did so with a high-wire tension that occasionally sounded like a band too eager to prove their nowness. On This Is Not a Safe Place, there are no questions to answer and no rust to shake off. What results is a loose, low-stakes record whose highs surpass all of the similar achievements found on its predecessor.
With nothing to prove, This Is Not a Safe Place has the luxury of looking back more explicitly to Ride’s earlier material. The best tracks here feature the welcome return of the pure shoegaze soundscapes that were largely missing from Weather Diaries: opener “R.I.D.E.” fronts with trip-hop menace before merging with a gauzy shimmer worthy of the Cocteau Twins, epic closer “In This Room” envelopes its horizons like a gathering rainstorm, and “Eternal Recurrence” builds into a bittersweet, slow-motion cyclone of double-tracked vocals and all-encompassing guitars.
The sonic longing of Ride’s return to full-blown shoegaze matches up nicely with the record’s recurring lyrical heartache, which is also found on the record’s two biggest standouts. Single “Future Love” may be the best Ride song in a quarter-century; it’s certainly the catchiest, thanks to the guitar interplay between Andy Bell’s glinty lead and Mark Gardener’s jangle-filled rhythm. Elsewhere, the winsome “Clouds of Saint Marie” may be the best track The La’s never wrote and represents a surprising spot of blue amid the record’s beguiling overcast highlights.
The Bad: Not all of the songs on This Is Not a Safe Place concern themselves with cathartic shoegaze explorations of love and relationships; if they did, this section would probably be blank. Unfortunately, Ride deviate from that formula to their detriment, particularly on the album’s back half. The clanging social commentary that deep-sized a number of songs on Weather Diaries returns with a wincing vengeance; chief offenders include the hookless Warhol-quoting “15 Minutes” and “Dial Up”, whose doltish central metaphor (“It’s like my brain’s on dial-up/ It’s trying but it can’t get through”) could be read as a mean-spirited parody of Damon Albarn or Thom Yorke if not for the sincerity with which it’s delivered. Ride’s attempts to rock out also land mostly anonymously; while “Repetition” succeeds on the strength of Loz Colbert’s electro-charged drums, tracks like “Kill Switch” and “Jump Jet” might’ve been better left as B-sides.
The Verdict: More than 30 years into their careers, the men of Ride continue to refine the swirling sounds that defined a genre and a generation. Taken on their own, the neo-shoegaze tracks of This Is Not a Safe Place could’ve made the strongest EPs in the genre’s entire catalog. Instead, they form the supporting framework of a record firmly in the middle tier of the band’s recorded output. Perhaps that’s as it should be; as “Repetition” says, it’d be pretty boring to hear the band play variations on “Vapour Trail” until they get too old to hold up their guitars. Not every experiment on This Is Not a Safe Place succeeds, but that’s okay; failures still signify work in progress, and we can all agree that a world in which Ride’s at work is always preferable to the alternative.
Essential Tracks: “Future Love”, “Clouds of Saint Marie”, and “In This Room”