Like a message in a bottle or the light of a long-dead star, music takes time to make its way from its source to its receiver. These things are written and recorded, teased and announced, previewed and anticipated, pressed and packaged, and eventually, New Music Friday rolls around and delivers unto you a new album. But to the band who crafted it, it’s not new at all—they know every note intimately, having lived with them all for weeks, months, or even years at a time. The music reflects that period of their lives, as if affixed with a timestamp only they can see. So while listeners are reckoning with something new, artists are being pulled back into the past, returning to a moment they may no longer recognize.
The self-produced debut album from indie-rock four-piece Slow Pulp—Emily Massey (vocals/guitar), Henry Stoehr (guitar), Alex Leeds (bass) and Teddy Mathews (drums)—may as well have been written and recorded in another lifetime. The Madison-bred, Chicago-based band began work on their first full-length last spring, and they redirected their efforts after Massey was diagnosed with Lyme disease and chronic Mono; her newfound focus on self-care dovetailed with Slow Pulp fine-tuning their approach to songwriting, parallel processes each rooted in accountability and communication. These new songs came together in earnest during the band’s fall 2019 tour alongside Alex G, but in March 2020, as they were finishing the album, Massey’s parents were injured in a serious car accident, requiring her to return home to Madison to care for them—soon after, the COVID-19 pandemic’s Stateside spread required her to stay there. The ensuing seven months of lockdown have distorted time almost beyond recognition.
The band finished Moveys (its title, in part, a nod to the upheaval of its making) from afar, and it’s better than it has any right to be, a vividly realized debut with the bold, exploratory confidence of a mid-career release. The shoegaze/post-punk blend that Slow Pulp built their buzz on is present, but there’s much more in the mixture here, particularly on the album’s A-side. Just take the rosy glow of “New Horse,” a statement of purpose that leads off Moveys on an expansive and dynamic note, its honeyed acoustic finger-picking opening onto a sea of thrumming synths and overlapping vocals. “If I could treat myself better / I know I’m still getting better / I might come back / I’ll hope for that,” sings Massey, looking forward to her future in a way that seems almost unfathomable of late. The song finds beauty not in some far-flung destination finally arrived at, but in that next step along the path, and the knowledge it will be followed by another, and another—small victories en route to the big one, which may or may not ever be attainable.
The folk undertones of “New Horse” echo elsewhere across Moveys, as well, a curveball that not only expands Slow Pulp’s stylistic scope in a way that defies expectations, but also amplifies the album’s emotional resonance, imbuing these songs of loss and disconnection with a uniquely middle-American melancholy. “Why don’t you go back / to falling apart / You were so good at that,” sings Massey on “Falling Apart,” defiant, as if challenging herself to let her brave face fall away and tell the truth of all the hurt behind it. Meanwhile, Mathews’ restrained percussion, Leeds’ sure-handed bass and Stoehr’s distant strums take a backseat to Alex G collaborator Molly Germer’s rueful violin, ceding space to the song’s most expressive element.
Slow Pulp take a similar tack on penultimate track and final Moveys single “Montana,” again foregrounding the acoustic guitar as Massey laments, “I’m a bad mess / I’m a loser with no plans.” Willie Christianson’s slide guitar and harmonica flourishes help to evoke the song’s outpouring of inner desolation, and the result is unlike anything Slow Pulp have ever released, a devastating blow the band are careful to soften with the album’s closing cut. Pseudo-title track “Movey,” a sample-based instrumental complete with funky keys and DJ scratches, lets us down easy, delivering a critical bit of levity to counterweight the despair.
That same light shines through a couple of other cracks, from glimmering lead single “Idaho,” which takes its title from when Stoehr mistook a Colorado gig for taking place a couple of states away, to the synth slap bass of “Trade It,” or the vocal sample and 808 intro to “Track.” Slow Pulp achieve a difficult balancing act between feelings and fun, contemplating serious and deeply personal subjects without ever taking themselves too seriously. “Whispers (in the Outfield),” an electric piano instrumental written by Stoehr and performed by Massey’s father Michael while recovering from his accident, lands somewhere in between, a serene interlude that gives the songs around it room to breathe.
Moveys indicates what new ground Slow Pulp may break in the future, but it also represents their roots. Fuzzed-out rocker “Channel 2,” featuring Leeds on lead vocals, would have fit right in on the band’s 2017 EP2, while the effects-heavy guitars and sticky melodies of “Idaho” and “Track” are more in line with last year’s Big Day EP. Common to all these songs is the confidence of a band who have leaned on each other through trouble and grown stronger for it, learning to better work together and making the most of their hard-won creative chemistry. Slow Pulp’s future is awash with possibilities, and that future is now.
Scott Russell is Paste’s former news editor, his wife’s current husband and his couch’s eternal occupant. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.