Sunday, August 4, 2013

Album Review: Primal Scream – More Light (2013)

Primal Scream will forever be associated with Screamadelica, the band’s genre-bending classic, made just three albums into a fledging career back in 1991. That career game-changer has ensured every subsequent release by the band has, to one extent or another, been judged by that lofty peak. Only occasionally has the band come close to living up to such a high level of critical expectation, most notably on 2000’s XTRMNTR. That was more than a dozen years ago now, and although 2002’s Evil Heat had its moments, the back-to-basics approach of 2006’s Riot City Blues and the electro pop of 2008’s Beautiful Future didn’t fare so well in critical terms. I don’t believe either of the two most recent efforts were poor albums, it’s just that neither one was a patch on the acid-electronica opus that was Screamadelica. And therein lies the problem; successive “failures” for Primal Scream has largely resulted in the loss of any ongoing critical relevance the Scottish band once enjoyed.

But this is nothing new for Primal Scream; indeed, the band’s immediate follow-up to Screamadelica, Give Out But Don’t Give Up, met with a similar reaction. That album, from 1994, rates as one of the best Rolling Stones albums not made by the Rolling Stones, yet the response it received was one of widespread ambivalence. Despite it working as an unheralded precursor to Britpop, a throwback to another era, a dirty Stonesy variation on the more commercially embraced Oasis-Beatles thing happening elsewhere … (well, not exactly elsewhere, the Scream did after all share the same label as Oasis – Creation Records). But what on earth did Primal Scream think it was doing? … was Bobby Gillespie on some kind of demented Jagger trip? … and why was the band messing with a formula that had served so well?
The answer of course is that Primal Scream has always valued reinvention as the single most important part of the game. It’s been a continual theme across the band’s 30-year career and it preceded even Screamadelica. From “C86 indie” originals to acid house, from a dub/rock crossover to aggressive political rock, from hard edged electro to earthy blues, all the way through to Beautiful Future in 2008, which is the closest the post-Screamadelica band has come to making an album of straightforward pop. On More Light, the band’s tenth studio effort released earlier this year, we get what amounts to a hybrid taster of just about every genre the band has touched upon previously. And it seems to work.

I’ve got the Japanese deluxe edition of More Light ... which means the standard 13-track album, plus a couple of extras on one disc, and a six-track additional disc containing material that otherwise probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day … 21 tracks all up, and a huge amount of variety on offer.

I have to say though, that as the years have rolled on, I’ve started to find Gillespie’s vocal a little annoying. What once resonated brightly has now started to induce bouts of cringing. What worked when he was in his twenties/early thirties (a faux-American hippy drippy accent) doesn’t quite have the same sense of authenticity now that he’s the wrong side of 50. That has become something of a minor hurdle for me to overcome when listening to More Light.
Having said that, I’ll always prefer his American-drawl-out-of-Govan twang to the nasal whine of one Liam Gallagher.

It turns out most of the band remains intact, sans Mani, who’s returned to the bosom of the Stone Roses, for now. Lyrically it’s prototype Primal Scream, politics is a recurrent theme, naturally, and references – direct or otherwise – to Maggie Thatcher are right across the album, not least on tense opener ‘2013’. That track gets a great Andrew Weatherall remix on the “bonus” disc, one of the best reworks I’ve heard all year, and generally the second disc adds value.

The closer, and first single, ‘It’s Alright, It’s Ok’, is like every other Scream mid-tempo-jam I’ve ever heard before, and it’s familiarity is strangely comforting. If I think I’ve heard it before, it’s because I have, a hazy, intoxicating flurry of so many Scream touchstones in a five-minute sitting. ‘Movin’ On Up’ being its most immediate point of reference.  

But in between there’s great stuff like ‘Culturecide’, which wouldn’t be out of place on XTRMNTR, the vaguely psychedelic ‘River of Pain’, the both early-period and Riot City aping rocker ‘Invisible City’, and the slow burning creeper of the set, ‘Elimination Blues’, which features the understated vocal delights of Robert Plant.
Kevin Shields’ woozy guitar tones are all over More Light, as is the signature production of David Holmes. Brendan Lynch adds his mixing skills, but putting aside any big gun support, the album works mostly because Primal Scream sound relaxed. As tight as they can be, as a unit, thirty years on. A band with a certain self assurance, one that’s seen it all before.

On More Light, you sense the band knows it has nothing left to prove, and there’s no real attempt to prove anything. With no apparent desire or need for reinvention this time, Primal Scream revisit Primal Scream, and snippets of its own history provide the basis for the creation of something new. Yet something still very familiar, cobbled together out of remnants of the past.

Primal Scream may no longer be as relevant as they once were, and there’s always a risk that Old Father Time can turn a band into a sad parody of its former self, but in this instance it feels like Gillespie and co have stayed on just the right side of the thin line, and More Light appeals as probably the best Primal Scream album in more than a decade.

Here’s Elimination Blues:

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