Slowdive - Pygmalion

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Shoegaze is all about size. Expansive sound moves outward and upward, cramming the sonic palette toward sensory overload.

However, for their final record Pygmalion, released almost exactly 20 years ago, Slowdive reversed the sonic expectations of shoegaze and crafted one of the most delicate and desolate ambient albums of the 1990s.

Slowdive began their career as orchestrators of massive sound. The band deployed this technique excellently on their stunning early EPs and their aurally enormous 1991 debut Just For a Day. The guitars and keys on Just For a Day move in all directions, flooding the listener, dizzying them into hypnotically gorgeous chaos.

For their sophomore effort Souvlaki, Slowdive balanced their penchant for big sounds with perfectly succinct songwriting. Melody and structure became of equal importance to the songs’ immense soundscapes. Despite mixed reviews at the time of release (Melody Maker described the album as a “soulless void”), Souvlaki remains a shoegazing exemplar, second perhaps only to Loveless in terms of its influence and celebration.

Alas, following the overwhelming success of Souvlaki, things got extremely weird and unpleasant for Slowdive:

  1. The band’s UK label Creation Records lost interest in the group (and shoegaze in general) and offered very little support for the recording sessions of their final record, subsequently dropping the band a week after Pygmalion’s release
  2. Drummer Simon Scott left the band in 1994, citing creative differences as the cause of his departure. He was subsequently replaced by Ian McCutcheon
  3. During a tour of the United States, Slowdive’s American distributor SBK pulled all funding from the band mid-trip, forcing them to fund the remainder of their tour themselves
  4. Front man Neil Halstead subsequently took to the Pygmalion recording sessions completely alone, enlisting the help of Rachel Goswell for vocal takes only

Considering the above, it should come as no surprise that Pygmalion sounds as empty and dark as the deepest ocean. Drum loops, bleeps and infinite space permeate the record, resulting in a sound that’s more ambient Aphex Twin or Brian Eno than it is Chapterhouse or Ride.

“Rutti” opens Pygmalion at its peak. Over ten illustrious minutes, the track expands and contorts under a myriad of speckled guitars and Halstead’s resonating, dreamy drawl. The track remains an apex of the band’s stellar career, up alongside tracks like “Alison” and “Souvlaki Space Station”.

Edgy experimentation fills much of the remainder of Pygmalion’s side-A. Rachel Goswell’s haunting, angelic vocals are looped and digitised into oblivion on “Miranda” and Halstead similarly manipulates his vocals to startling effect on “Crazy for You” and “Trellisaze”.

Pygmalion’s second side is similarly littered with delicate ambience, bold experimentation and expansive soundscapes.

“Blue Skied an’ Clear” is perhaps the closest representation of popular songwriting apparent on Pygmalion. The songs chorus of “You say life and it sounds so good / You say love and it sounds so sweet” neatly coalesces with the band’s sonic and thematic aesthetic of simplicity, otherworldliness, repetition, love.

The sheer quality and size of “Blue Skied an’ Clear” carries the weight of the album’s lesser second half, encouraging unadventurous listeners to scour the desolation of tracks like “Cello” and “Visions of LA”.

Pygmalion ends on the haunting acoustic track “All of Us”. Driven by half-plucked nylon guitar notes and cinematic cello, the track is a perfect indicator of the direction Halstead’s songwriting would go in the coming years.

Following the critical chastise of Pygmalion, Slowdive sadly ceased, joining an ever-growing list of fellow shoegazers shunned by the music press following the increasing success of the UK’s Brit-pop movement. Halstead and Goswell subsequently formed Mojave 3, a sunnier, surfier and ultimately far lesser version of Slowdive that kind of sounds like a crappy Mazzy Star.

While Souvlaki remains Slowdive’s crowning achievement (very few albums are that good), Pygmalion is probably their most interesting. Stuck in some awkward space between shoegaze, ambient, electronic, and fuck knows whatever else, Pygmalion denies classification and remains somewhat alien.

Given its polarising nature and incomparability to anything that came before or after, Pygmalion remains a forgotten gem and an elegant finale to an unbelievably high-quality career.

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