In the 15 years since their demise, Slowdive are still best known for spearheading the short-lived and maligned ‘shoegaze’ trend by the UK press. Initially celebrated, they were quickly shot down and wished away, the effects of their music, indeed anything about that genre at all, being regarded as an unfunny joke. It’s only in the last few years has there been growing interest in the genre and indeed a resurgence in groups that would contentedly admit to being fans of Slowdive. Catch-all label Cherry Red casts the final word on Slowdive, re-releasing their three albums with a bonus disc of rare and unreleased material on each.
The first period of the band, dominated by their three EPs and debut album Just For A Day, are represented by a floating, feather-light sound, full of symphonic washes of guitar and vocals that exist as barely amplified whispers. Released in 1990, their self-titled EP settled like a blissful transcendent fog, conjuring images of the Cocteau Twins matched with the yawning guitars of My Bloody Valentine. For a brief while this provided the perfect blueprint for Slowdive to roam within, something they achieved to perfection with the following year’s Holding Our Breath EP. Just For A Day would show a further progression within the band, noticeably shifting between the vocals of Rachel Goswell and songwriter Neil Halstead, and giving way to the more brooding influence of Dead Can Dance, noticeable on the wavering strings of “Spanish Air”. For all its promise, Just For A Day found Slowdive falling short of fresh ideas, resorting to include a new recording of Holding Our Breath‘s lead track, “Catch The Breeze”.
In a period that typified a renewed interest in drug culture, Slowdive were the soundtrack to the comedown, a seductive sedative that gave a new meaning to the phrase ‘blissed out’. Their second album Souvlaki, released in 1993, is Slowdive’s finest moment. A record that wasn’t without its problems, Souvlaki embraced a more stream-lined pop aesthetic while expanding the band’s sound, bringing in ambient-maestro Brian Eno as producer/collaborator. A deeply melancholic, emotive and soul-searching record, every track on Souvlaki leaves a distinctive trace. “Listen close and don’t be stoned/I’ll be here in the morning” Halstead swoons/soothes on the free-falling “Alison”. In an album that resists repetition, Slowdive unplug themselves of “Dagger” and opt for staccato trance on “Souvlaki Space Station” and push the idea further on the impressive ambient remix “Moussaka Chaos”. While other bands of the era kowtowed with the sea change headed by Britpop, Slowdive refused to budge, pushing themselves in increasingly alienating directions. When their final album Pygmalion was released, or better yet abandoned, by their label Creation, Slowdive’s days were numbered. To put things within context, after Pygmalion, the next Creation album would be Oasis’ youth-unifying Definitely, Maybe.
Impossible to get a hold of at the time, Pygmalion’s (1995) minimal abstract cover bore witness to a change occurring within the music and the band itself. Slowdive had essentially become Halstead and Goswell, and Pygmalion was barely recognisable to the album that preceded it. Absent of the warmth and emotion of Souvlaki, Pygmalion astonished, but for all the wrong reasons. Taking the influence of Eno one step further, Slowdive experimented with loops and digital technology, abandoning conventional song structure along with it. A record of two distinct halves, the snail’s pace setting opener “Rutti” encourages patience, but as Pygmalion reveals itself, patience turns to exasperation. A victim of accidental/intentional sounds-too-much-like-old-Slowdive self-sabotage (“Crazy For You”) and amateur kitchen-sink ambient (“Trellisaze”), all is not fully lost. Tucked away near the close, both “Blue Skied ‘an Clear” and “All of Us” retain the stripped-back rolling dream essence of Slowdive all the while telegraphing a new beginning for Goswell and Halstead as Mojave 3. It’s a frustrating record that some cry as “misunderstood”, but at best is a tribute to creative vision/stubbornness rather than the drive of a misunderstood genius.