Maybe it’s been inevitable all along, but the timing of Slowdive’s reunion announcement—arriving just a year after My Bloody Valentine’s first album in 22 years—still feels eerily appropriate. There’s little dispute that MBV defined shoegaze on 1991’s Loveless. But trading Kevin Shields’ snarling guitar manipulations for softer, dreamier textures, the Reading-based Slowdive took the genre to its logical conclusion—and unleashed the definitive shoegaze statement, Souvlaki, in May of 1993.
It’s no coincidence that Slowdive itself abandoned shoegaze shortly after, trading in guitars for keyboard loops on 1995’s forgotten Pygmalion. Nor is it a coincidence that Souvlaki arrived just weeks after Suede’s debut landed and jumpstarted Britpop into high gear—replacing any lingering shoegaze hysteria in the British presses. Souvlaki, simply, took the movement as far as it could go.
Here are the five reasons it’s even better than Loveless—and an enduring masterpiece of ‘90s British music.
No one listens to Loveless for the lyrics. That’s fine and good—Kevin Shields’ monstrous guitar summonings are lyrical enough in their own right, and you can never hear what the hell he’s singing anyway. No one listens to The Jesus & Mary Chain, Ride, or Cocteau Twins (here’s a recent transliteration of “Athol-Brose”) for the lyrics, either. Souvlaki, then, makes for the rare shoegaze album with a lyrical and emotional depth to match its formidable sonic depth. And its not-too-well-kept secret is that it’s a breakup album.
Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead, Slowdive’s dual vocalists, knew each other since school days. Internet legend has it that they were romantically intertwined but dissolved their personal relationship before Souvlaki. The members have only ever hinted at such a scenario, but it would more than explain the heavy pall of heartbreak that hangs over Souvlaki. “Forty days and I miss you / I’m so high that I lost my mind,” Halstead sings on the noisy and desperate “40 Days.” The closing “Dagger” is even more devastating: “You know I am your dagger / You know I am your wound / I thought I heard you whisper / It happens all the time.”
Souvlaki, then, is the Rumours for the dream-pop set, a bracing chronicle of heartbreak that finds each contributors to that heartbreak playing equal roles.
Musical chemistry, that is. If Loveless is largely the product of one man’s perfectionism (Kevin Shields has declared that he’s “the only musician on the record except for the Colm [Ó Cíosóig] song), Souvlaki is wrought from collaboration. And given how remarkable Goswell and Halstead sounded together, it’s no wonder they spirited on—past the breakup of both their personal relationship and of Slowdive (recording as Mojave 3).
Souvlaki, though, is where the potential crystallized into something faintly magical. On “Machine Gun”, the two trade off verse and chorus on an ethereal melody that makes drowning sound positively beautiful. On “Sing”, their voices meld dimly into one, submerged by the ambient force of Brian Eno’s contributions. And that’s not to discount their instrumental chemistry as well (and with the rest of the band), considering it’s the guitar work of the two members that lends Souvlaki both its distinctly otherworldly texture—from the bleeding noise rush of “When the Sun Hits” to the fuzzier, more distant trembles of “Melon Yellow” and “Altogether”—and a level of variety that few other shoegaze records touch. Hell, there’s even an acoustic cut (“Dagger”) side by side with the stuttering-alien outro that Radiohead later nabbed for “Karma Police” (listen to those last 20 seconds of “Souvlaki Space Station” and try to deny it).
Though over the years I’ve grown to favor the sweepingly perfect “Machine Gun”—and you might well prefer the pummeling psychedelic whirlwind that is “Souvlaki Space Station”—“Alison” is unimpeachable, a pitch-perfect postcard from the Creation Records ‘90s. Everything about it—those opening chords, the faraway vocal delivery, the hazy imagery (“Outside your room your sister’s spinning / But she lies, tells me she’s just fine”)—sets the tone for the quiet, druggy desperation that unfurls over the subsequent nine tracks.
Each time I hear it, I think of the time in college I worked out the song’s guitar chords, then locked myself in an echo-ey dorm bathroom to try and get the reverb right. Of course, it didn’t come close.
Story goes, Slowdive wanted desperately for Brian Eno to produce their sophomore effort. A cocky gamble, considering the group’s 1991 debut, Just For a Day, was pleasant at best. But no matter—they penned Eno a letter and he, being the bald, gentlemanly guru that he is, responded in kind.
But not to produce. Eno only offered to collaborate, and the two tracks that bear his mark—the trance-like, haunting “Sing”, co-written by Eno, and the trembling, understated “Here She Comes”—are among Souvlaki’s most remarkable compositions, charting a sort of lost link between the 1990s British underground and one of the godfathers of 1970s art-rock.
It’s no wonder the sessions were weird, too. Halstead told Drowned in Sound it was “one of the most surreal stoned experiences of [his] life,” later recalling that “the first thing [Eno] did when he walked into the studio was to rip the clock off the wall and put it by the mixing desk.” In retrospect, the collaboration gives Souvlaki a sort of intergenerational echo of influences that Loveless and other standbys from the era don’t have.
I hate bonus cuts. More often than not, at least. They’re indulgent, they muck up the flow of classic LPs, and often enough they’re a transparent ploy to get fans to repurchase the same album twice.
But the four that close the 1994 American issue of Souvlaki arrived less than a year after the album proper, well before it had time to solidify any sort of classic stature, and so there’s context to be mined here. In brief, they show just how thoroughly (and astoundingly) the group had mined the shoegaze category dry—and hint at what was still to come, whether under the Slowdive moniker or with future projects. Lee Hazlewood’s “Some Velvet Morning” offers a rare glimpse of Slowdive applying its narcotic dreaminess to another songwriter’s work. “Good Day Sunshine” and “Missing You” offer half-formed hints of the loop fascinations that would overtake Slowdive, in more confident fashion, on 1995’s Pygmalion. And the yearning, pastoral “Country Rain” gasps all the way ahead to Mojave 3, blanketing some of Goswell’s most breathtaking vocals (“And the rain keeps on falling / In my heart,” she intones) in a hazy fog of reverb. Excepting “Machine Gun” and “Blue Skied An’ Clear”, it may well be the most gorgeous track this criminally underappreciated band ever produced.