And the Glass Handed Kites
ew are a band about big things. These big things include, but are not limited to: "a column of electric space lightning," "a swarm of glutinous, fleshy sea aliens with nipples for eyes," and, joltingly, "J Mascis with the irises of a devil." So that's where Mew are—standing beside And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, playing prog-rock for a generation conditioned to despise it yet compelled to adore it.
But forget all the bigness. Mew's fourth album, And the Glass Handed Kites, despite its Great Red Spot aesthetic, and despite the reluctance of any two songs to be caught dead without an intertrack, succeeds—when it succeeds—because of the little things. There's the band's habit, studious but easily missed, of anchoring their otherworldly cherub rock to earth with rough, sour guitars—see "The Zookeeper's Boy," whose sky-high mantra of a chorus ("Are you my lady? Are you?") remains bound to its rumbling verses by the band's refusal to scrub the guitar to the same degree of ProTools transparency as everything else, and which acquires a grace you can imagine a thousand cover versions missing. And there's "Why Are You Looking Grave?", on which a possibly devil-irised J Mascis demonstrates that no other voice is as good at lazily succumbing to a malestrom, and which has the unexpected decency, despite the novelty of Mascis' presence, to be a good song.
Frontman Jonas Bjerre's lyrics are as filled with Lovecraftian detritus as those nipple-eyed sea aliens suggest, but at their simplest they achieve an awkward charm. It's almost as easy to snort at "We have no umbrella brought / With which the wind be fought" as it is to scoff at the title of the song containing it, "The Seething Rain Weeps for You," but it's even easier to like it; and scattered amidst Bjerre's hand-me-down nightmares are strange lopsided gems. "Should I re-live my life / I'd run into you much sooner" is unaffectedly sweet, and "The chain on my swing is squeaking like a mouse" helps make "The Zookeeper's Boy" into a suburban-Gothic triumph to rival the most memorable of our chemical romances.
The press kit wants me to call And the Glass Handed Kites "one long song." It isn't. There's too much pop in Mew's blood for that, and too much classical songcraft; but they do try, and sometimes the big things, grim and tedious, take over. Songs like "A Dark Design"—a minute of portent, two-and-a-half minutes of chugging—seem more a part of that one long song than the album's good bits, and somewhere in the middle of the interminable closer "Louise Louisa" one's suspicions are confirmed: And the Glass Handed Kites is good in spite of the big things, not because of them. The album's best moments stand defiantly alone, and even its second-tier songs—"White Lips Kissed;" "Fox Cub," Spartan in form and content; the deliriously titled "Saviours of Jazz Ballet (Fear Me, December)"—have little to lean on. This is a singles album disguised as a concept album, and the disguise clutters and mars Mew's occasionally beautiful visage. But they're not so hard to unmask. Thank heaven for small favors.