Every decent band evolves, morphs, changes and shifts their sound as years go by. The Beatles are respected because they made it from Please Please Me to Sgt. Pepper’s to Let It Be. If you set your sights on staying one way, you just end up being another Rooney or Phantom Planet. Then there are the bands whose great switcheroos come not over the course of years but within individual albums themselves. Paramount among groups devoted to cultivating such variety is Primal Scream. More Light is another entry into a catalog all about crossing genre lines, stepping back and leaping forward.
2013 has seen alt British rockers coming out of the woodwork with comebacks north, south, east and west. My Bloody Valentine released an album after 22 years, and The Stone Roses played Coachella. During both of their hiatuses, some of their members even contributed to Primal Scream’s sound live or in studio. It’s useful to see Primal Scream as occupying the territory dead center between those two bands. Sonic experimentation meets guitar-pop revivalism on almost every one of their records, and More Light is no exception.
Speaking of My Bloody Valentine, it’s fretboard wizard Kevin Shields providing a few of the sound washes on opening track “2013.” Starting your album with a track named after the year of its release is bold. It ensures current listeners this will be an album set on its own modernity, but it also dates the album for anyone who wants to hear it in future years. The whole song swivels on a sort of fixed axis, but this is not the sound of a child on a rocking horse or an old man caught in the lulling forth and back motion of his rocking chair.
“2013” is a year and song that finds Bobby Gillespie and company pivoting on the balls of their feet, moving to the anxious rhythms of sonic mortality. They may not always be able to make great music, but for now they still can. No midlife crises here, no trying to repeat the wildness of youth for catharsis. And no forays into unfortunate living-room pop. It’s hip dad maturity, aware who he was and who he’s grown to be.
Seven-minute “River of Pain” proves Primal Scream isn’t primarily interested in holding the listener’s attention through any conventional means. The first couple of songs on an average record tend to be short, punchy and beckoning to the listeners’ baser sensibilities. Here, there’s a nine-minute song kicking the festivities off and a seven-minute one right after. Not exactly a one-two punch, more an attempt at captivating choreography. It works, but only slightly. “River of Pain” winds and meanders, and it’s easy to lose focus.
After those come a string of shorter songs, all venturing to different countries and corridors. “Culturecide” is dancey, and “Hit Void” shoegazes. “Tenement Kid” has the same eerie jazz vibe of Portishead’s early work. “Invisible City” would’ve fit on Johnny Marr’s solo debut earlier this year as well as it does here. From “Goodbye Johnny” on there are even more styles traversed, but not until “Walking With the Beast” does the band stop to refuel. They’re much the better for it because until then, the album’s latter half hits ruts and sputters. A slowed down number like this comes as a relieving and necessary pit stop.
“It’s Alright, It’s OK” is the star of this album for the same reason “Movin’ on Up” first grabbed audiences’ ears on Screamadelica. The guitar sounds like optimism and the piano barrel rolls like a “Shine a Light,” Rolling Stones shot at secular gospel. The rest of the album impresses and disappoints, but this track inspires. Stripped of the experimentation, Primal Scream proves as well as any band working today the importance of this kind of melody. We need songs like this to get through the working week, the ups and downs of all life’s pitfalls.
The problem with More Light is the problem with any given Primal Scream record: too much variety. And the problem with that problem is it can also work for them as a strength. But on More Light, it can get hard to see any kind of cohesion beyond compilation. Their light’s still shining, but now in flickers. But that’s alright, that’s OK.