If you’ve followed my content for any length of time (God help you), you’ll have noticed that I give out perfect/transcendent scores with comical frequency. While my instinct is to laugh this off, recently I’ve been considering this much more seriously as a potential issue. What if my own open-minded system DOES mean I exchange actual critique for description? What if this “listening journal” format I’m currently employing doesn’t give me enough time to absorb an album? What if I’m only listening to a bunch of 8s or 9s instead of all-time greats? What if only going to the commonly accepted “peak” of an artists’ career is tokenist and banal?
All this is to say that I’m giving yet ANOTHER classic album the highest grade I can grade in the history of me grading, and will spend this review’s entire length gushing about how much I love it and how it’s one of my new favorite albums. “Yadayada Steven, you love everything you nothing-standard hack”, I know, I know. I really oughta review a bad album sometime, that would be something wouldn’t it?
In my defense, not only is Souvlaki an everlasting gob-smackingly great album, it’s also a great moody piece. One to lie down in and be absorbed by, an escape that only heightens the awareness of your own faults after you’ve left. Why CAN’T I be perfect and just get it over with? Why can’t everything be like the world of Souvlaki, where heartbreak is beautiful and mistakes are theatrical rather than annoying? That’s the base appeal of the emo/goth semi-philosophy, right? That primal pessimistic part of me really NEEDS an album like this, one mellow where Loveless is bright, downbeat where live albums by The Who are upbeat, melancholic where most of my collection is fun. My favorites are my favorites for a reason, but they just don’t cover what I’m feeling the way Souvlaki covers the way I feel right now: apprehensive about my future, self-critical, mellowed out after an earlier peak in motivation. It can only get better from here, right?
Well that’s enough self-important whining. Souvlaki is a shoegaze album. I don’t know much about shoegaze, but the references I do have point to its main pillars being roughly the same of all noise music: to trip out, decentralize, pound, and generally mess with the listeners’ brain. I suppose distorting otherwise normal songs into walls of sound creates a kind of uncanny valley effect on the ear best suited for unapologetic noisy cascades like Loveless or deconstructive trip-outs like Isn’t Anything. Souvlaki’s angle is neither of those things, or even anything on that spectrum: this is DREAM music. The distortion isn’t used to give abstract emotions concrete musical presence, it’s to take the concrete and make it abstract.
The opening track, “Alison”, is the most straightforward example. It’s about drugs. Whee, breaking new ground for shoegaze! But specifically, it’s about drugs as escapism, the devaluing of the real world, and the implication of how much the real world is going to hurt once drug abuse catches up with you. This is the kind of song shoegaze was MADE for, a joyfully free, depressingly foreboding, thickly decadent, darkly menacing fuzz of painfully finite ecstasy. What a wonderful atmosphere.
Now, is the album a bit samey? Yeah. But it never becomes boring because every emotion is so intense and the constant beauty is so warm and inviting, even if the cloud of “this can’t last” is always hanging overhead. “Machine Gun” is so dark that it’s difficult for me to get through. The only reason I can is because it’s so breathtakingly gorgeous that I can forget about the suicidal lyrics. It probably should have come after the trivial-by-comparison heartbreak of “40 Days”, but oh well. “40 Days” features some slow but stinging guitar lines, a smart and memorable way to continue beating your heart into submission. “Sing” is cavernous, bubbly, open-sounding bliss, slow, sticky, enveloping. It’s also got one of the prettiest melodies on the album (but more on them later). “Here She Comes” finally brings us into positivity territory, with lyrics about loneliness at a huge social gathering, communicated in some of the album’s most sparse production (especially by the standards of shoegaze). A nebulous “she” shows up at the very end, and even though my first thought was that “she” was a stand-in for drugs (yes this is that kind of album), I decided that there wasn’t enough grounds for that and switched to the more literal, heartwarming perspective. Too bad the song ends before we can see what they were up to, eh?
Then the album pulls one of the most brilliant double punches I’ve ever heard with “Souvlaki Space Station” and “When The Sun Hits.” “Souvlaki Space Station” sounds like the title. There’s no other way to sum up this majesty. It’s immediately evocative of space, solitude, wonder, unlimited freedom…the stuff dreams are made of. It’s one of the more up-front songs on the album, with an attention-grabbing intensity and wonderful echoing riff. It’s practically the ideal shoegaze song. “When The Sun Hits” also sounds like the title, with an endless glow communicated through shimmeringly haunting guitar that’s both obtrusive and gorgeous. These two songs are as perfect sonic pictures as you could ever hope to paint.
The final trio can’t reach those heights, especially since they mellow out a bit, but they’re good nonetheless. “Melon Yellow” is unnaturally slow, to the extent where it can be taken as either unnerving or contemplative. “Dagger” is a lot softer and lo-fi then the title would suggest, definitely the least shoegaze song on here in sound, though it’s gut-punchy lyrics fit perfectly and the melody is nice. “Altogether” is bit underwhelming as a closer, but by now the formula of otherworldly beauty has been perfected enough for me to get swept up in it anyway.
Now, a lot of people fault shoegaze for its songwriting, which is often hidden beneath the fuzziness and distortion, so before I conclude I want to throw out a quick admission: the melodies on this album are pretty enh. There’s not a lot of catchy, pretty riffs like on Loveless, for example. I don’t mind this because (a) the album never pretends to be about melody and (b) the melodies are all very nice sounding even if they’re not memorable. Thankfully, this is a MOOD album, and should be judged as such. If descriptions like “dreamy”, “ethereal”, “trippy”, and other words right out of The Complete Hack’s Guide to Musical Description will insta-sell and album for you, you pretty much need to listen to this right now. A lot of people see those descriptions as warnings of course, but…enh, they’re all nuts.
Thematic Content: 5/5
Experience: Trying to psychoanalyze a dream…while you’re still dreaming. And going through a breakup.
10+/10 (yawn). Best Song: Souvlaki Space Station