Swervedriver I Wasn’t Born to Lose You

[Cobraside; 2015]

Styles: desert rock, shoegaze, indie, nostalgia
Others: My Bloody Valentine, A Place to Bury Strangers, Ride, Jesus and Mary Chain

The open-road metaphor was made for Swervedriver. Never quite belonging to that land tagged by the word “shoegaze” and never loyal to any other tag prevalent in the 90s, they were destined to occupy the musical hinterlands. Migrating repeatedly to and from shoegaze, psychedelic, punk, Britpop, noise, and alternative rock, they moved perpetually in a homeless limbo, where they were never quite in one place or the other, even when they were shaming their so-called peers with seminal moments like “Son of A Mustang Ford,” “Duel,” and “Bring Me The Head of The Fortune Teller.” Luckily, for those of us who’ve never really cared whether a band could be neatly assimilated into one particular genre or scene, this restless mobility was their genius.

Fittingly enough, restless mobility is one of the overarching motifs of I Wasn’t Born to Lose You, the fifth album of their career. Unfortunately, this motif appears without a correspondingly restless juxtaposition of styles and dynamics, without the band’s patented combination of shoegaze, on the one hand, and something like grunge, metal, or punk rock, on the other. Very tangible suspicions of the former genre can be heard in opener “Autodidact,” with the juddering sweeps of guitar that close its tranquilized progression, and in the beautifully distorted swoon that kicks off “Last Rites,” but for the most part, the ‘gazing has been replaced by a harmonious marriage of desert rock and pop that’s surprisingly timeless for an outfit earning media space for its affiliation with a certain era.

On paper, this abandoning of shoegaze markers is probably for the best, since the band’s association with the genre was an endless source of confusion, an inaccuracy that led them into a correspondingly endless volley of mishaps, misunderstandings, and injustices. Losing their original rhythm section within the space of a year’s touring in 1992, losing their recording contracts with A&M and Creation around the release of third LP Ejector Seat Reservation in 1995, and generally being mistaken for a band they weren’t throughout their decade-long stint, it was almost a miracle they were able to reach fourth album 99th Dream before calling it quits in 1998. For a while it seemed depressingly probable they’d be lost forever to the annals of rock history, a footnote in The Encyclopedia of Popular Music. However, given the rise of the internet (and to a lesser extent cable/satellite music TV stations), they slowly expanded their initial following to include a host of new converts (including the present signee), with this expansion culminating in a reunion tour in 2008, the very same year that My Bloody Valentine played their first show in 16 years.

On record, however, the jettisoning of shoegaze trickery takes place within a comeback that, even if very welcome, isn’t entirely spectacular. This isn’t so much the product of a deficit in fuzz, tremolo, and wah, but rather of an absence in the ferocity and power that made tracks like “For Seeking Heat” and “Kill the Superheroes” such irresistible head-turners. For all their gauzy peace, signposts like “Setting Sun” and “English Subtitles” coast through their twinkled chords without the hammering riffs, sinewy leads, and guitar cajolery that on previous records would’ve made for some distinctive fusions. Admittedly, Messrs. Franklin, Hartridge, George, and Jones are now wizened enough to insert progressions and crests in all the right places of “English Subtitles,” with its pregnant meditations eventually discharging themselves in a characteristically wide-eyed plow through power chords and Franklin’s serene drawl. However, without the biting force of their earlier incarnations, they now lack the very difference that made their loyal fan base clamor for their return, the brunt that positioned their mongrel dreaminess in the implausible limbo between Soundgarden and Slowdive.

Hence, in keeping with the majority of reunions, there’s an irony involved in Swervedriver’s, insofar as its realization cancels the redeeming features that motivate it. Moreover, without the added ingredient of the band’s deceptive savagery, I Wasn’t Born to Lose You loses a perfect complement to the eternal-wanderer and perpetual-outsider imagery in which it deals. “Lone Star,” with its baked strumming, ringing melody, and outgoing smoky lead, is another archetypal Swervedriver tale of lostness that has Franklin reminiscing, “You were always such a lone star,” yet without the punchy vigor of the pre-reunion days, as well as the peculiar soft-hard-psychedelic mix it engendered, their new MOR-ish m.o. expresses neither the marginal status the band occupied in the (pop) world nor the underlying anger and agitation they held for this status. They simply don’t sound as discontented, unsettled, and covertly indignant any more, which means that with rueful songs like “Deep Wound” (“They’ve burned your fingers/ Burned your bridges/ I see”) they come across as submissive and resigned, especially when considered in parallel with a later verse that declares, “This is a wound I have no intention to heal.”

Needless to say, it’s also less exciting, and it underlines how one of the key socio-political functions of popular music is undermined by the phenomenon of band reunions. Rock music has always been the sound of the disenfranchised, dissatisfied, and peripheral, which is one of the reasons why Swervedriver were and are so widely celebrated; their nomadic take on the genre implicitly spoke for so many people who felt excluded and rootless. Yet now, with the kind of acceptance and rehabilitation that reunions generally herald, and with the decrease in restiveness embodied by such an easygoing song as the loop-heavy “For A Day Like Tomorrow,” the ability of the band and its music to stand as an emblem for the alienated has been severely undercut. And perhaps more fatally, there’s also a cognitive dissonance inherent to the appreciated return of an under-appreciated band like Swervedriver, simply because their unappreciated and unsung status is arguably essential to their identity.

In other words, I Wasn’t Born To Lose You represents a musical catch-22 of sorts. And to complicate matters further, Franklin sings in almost complete disregard of his band’s reunion, as if they still resided in the dustbin of history. Despite the fact that they’ve received plenty of attention and praise since reforming in 2008 (which now also includes more than one favorable review and a spot on Jimmy Fallon), the album is replete with lamentations and regrets about the four-piece’s checkered career. On “Autodidact” there’s the “Dream of what might’ve been”, while on the more driven “Last Rites” there’s “the guitars are flat and your heart’s in a mess,” not to mention the “So you feel so sickly and brokenhearted.” Even though such reflections are no doubt valid frames for Swervedriver’s troubled past, they now seem a little hollow in the context of their resurgence. As a result, even a pumped, muscular runaround like “Red Queen Arms Race” has its swagger weakened somewhat by its protest of “I’m not satisfied/ With my position and my place.”

That said, there’s no proof that Franklin’s complaints revolve around the twisted fortune of his band. More importantly, his griping occurs within an album that’s more than worthy of the Swervedriver pedigree, regardless of whatever the foregoing remarks on potency, variety, reunions, and ungratefulness have to say about it. One listen to centerpiece “Everso” is enough to sway even the most hardened of skeptics towards this stance, what with its effortlessly absorbing lullaby, the heat-haze buzz of its guitars, and Franklin’s inimitable voice, which still to this day sounds mundane and extra-mundane at the same time, a perfect fit for the caught-between, floating existence that he and his cohorts have encapsulated masterfully for so long now. Of course, they don’t encapsulate it quite so masterfully, eclectically, and disarmingly as they did in their early- to mid-90s heyday, but even with its minor issues, the nostalgic escapism of I Wasn’t Born to Lose You reaffirms that Swervedriver were born to win more than their past life awarded them.

Links: Swervedriver - Cobraside

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