Mogwai Rave Tapes

[Sub Pop; 2014]

Styles: there is no light at the end of the tunnel (there is just another tunnel)
Others: Mogwai

A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened
– Albert Camus, quoted in the gatefold to Scott 4

So, Mogwai walks into the same bar he’s been going to for 10 years, but there’s a big difference: he’s wearing a new suit. It’s kinda shiny. Looks expensive. Does this every few years. Good quirk. The locals love it. People look up as he saunters to the bar. He still orders the usual, though. The old bartender knows the routine and asks Mogwai, “What’s the deal, man? Making some changes? What’s new?” Mogwai starts to grumble out the regular something something (half curse, half threat, something about Blur being shite), but there’s a flood of bill-toting fellas ordering stuff that isn’t just a Laphroaig and Coke, so said bartender has to cut him short to focus on the rush. Time can’t stop for Mogwai, he thinks, as he prepares all kind of mojitos and stuff with empty syringes in them that you just know they’ll be pouring tranqs or something into the first chance they get to sneak off to the bathroom. “Kids these days,” he wants to say to Mogwai, but Mogwai has already ambled off to his silent, dim corner and left the tip behind. The bartender feels bad for a second, but the rush picks up anew. Good ol’ Mogwai.

Of course, the problem with being a regular is that no one expects anything from you anymore, and Rave Tapes is the point at which you can set your watch by Mogwai and forget about them in the same breath. Pre-release chatter has thrown around the notion of this album being more electronic, but looking past the triangles on the cover, smattering synth around the place is a tonal switch-up as old as 2003’s Rock Action. What this record feels like is a tired band no longer able to summon up intensity, emotion, feeling, whatever; think of it as a companion piece to Tomorrow’s Harvest. It’s an exercise in competency, a test of everyone’s memory. “Remurdered” snarls like John Self taking a swing at himself in an NYC hotel room, but peters out into a hexy gauze. “Master Card” tries a kind of CAVE-style prog-post stuff, but they’re not funky enough to make it magnetic. Evanescences like “Heard About You Last Night” are reliable and disposable as ever (see “Auto Rock,” “Yes! I Am A Long Way From Home”), and “The Lord is Out of Control” feels like everything (vocoder, glacial tempos) that made Happy Songs For Happy People memorable jammed together until they aren’t. It’s a beautiful flatline.

What made Mogwai smarter than your average Explosions in the Sky was their hugely intuitive command of not just soft-loud emotion, but of the breadth between extremes. Yet, that focal drive toward conjuring something outside the sound feels completely missing. Whither the huge, dynamic emotional intensity of something as recent as “Friend of the Night” (which felt like Debussy fucking about with a chainsaw)? Consequently, at points, Rave Tapes just feels like Tindersticks without Stuart Staples after a good solid viewing of Tron, which make them the best soundtrack band in the world without any felling to play to or with, and without that feeling, it’s not worth a thing. To spade the spade, stand-and-deliver Mogwai don’t cut the same way they once did; after all, we are talking about an incredibly different world than 2003, let alone 1997. Like, the world has caught up to the point where hi-res post-rock is part of the entire rock music canon, whether it’s transmuted further into new shapes or made fluffy and interstital enough to appear as interludes on 30 Seconds To Mars albums between the song where Jared Leto tells everyone that they’re gonna be okay and the one where he tells them everyone else is wrong. At points, you could close your eyes and be anywhere but a Mogwai album.

I know they don’t give a fuck. Mogwai could be barrelling down the A1 in a stolen car with the petrol light flashing as bright as the police car in pursuit and just laugh and head for the ditch. They are pros, the best at what they do, but this is running on empty. This happens to every innovator; like, I imagine Gram Parsons would have been turning out awful square-dance-cum-banjo-preset if he’d survived until the 1980s. Look at ”Tight Connection To My Heart” and tremble, verily. Ye. This is nowhere nearly as bad as that, because Mogwai are above all master craftsmen (as opposed to muse-chasers), so they’re never going to embarrass themselves like that (though “Repelish” toes that line pretty fucking close). At the same time, they’ve been short of a second wind for a while now. Ultimately, though, this kind of safe water-treading is increasingly no country for old men, if they can’t get it across that they even really care about what they’re doing. And if Byzantium is just a permanently assured spot somewhere in the second tier of the Coachella lineup, why not just ride that payday until something, some new idea, really barges down the door?

Links: Mogwai - Sub Pop

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