The Pastels make a virtue of taking your time with their first album in sixteen (or ten or four) years, Slow Summits, as Andrew R. Hill finds.
It’s taken a while to get there, but it’s been worth the wait; The Pastels’ new record, Slow Summits, is – appropriately – a career high. It’s a record that seemed to threaten to remain inchoate forever, but now, sixteen years after their last album ‘proper’, Illumination, it has manifested as an album that is possessed of vivacity, gentle eccentricity and vibrant melodic brushstrokes, both fine and broad. It expands on a palette that was first exposed with Illumination, greatly developed with 2003’s The Last Great Wilderness soundtrack and further refined with 2009’s fruitful and frequently gorgeous collaboration with Tokyo’s Tenniscoats, Two Sunsets.
Secret Music fades in, reveals itself with an initially delicate arrangement of pattering drums, Gerard Love’s undulating bass and Katrina Mitchell’s voice - somehow both guileless and knowing - before growing into a (somewhat) quiet crescendo as other instruments and voices join in; it’s a perfect opener for an album that ebbs and flows but (slowly and - kind of - quietly) builds - the album title couldn’t be more apt, for innumerable reasons.
There’s a toughness that was missing on Two Sunsets underpinning Night Time Made Us that recurs throughout, and becomes more ferocious each time. It’s grit that’s tops things becoming too pretty, and keeps that certain strain of steeliness that The Pastels have always had present without disrupting the flow of the record (quite the opposite in fact - if anything, it keeps it pushing on). First single, Check My Heart, has a different kind of boldness to it. In primary colours, it’s the sound of summer, of letting go, of almost unbridled joy – almost, because, as with much of this record, even in its most summery moments there are slight melancholic touches, sometimes approaching something of a wistful tone; it’s a matter of light and shade though, and serves to make the sunniest parts all the more coruscating.
The climb continues with Summer Rain, framed with a chord progression that brings to mind Vic Godard and early Orange Juice (and again there’s that underlying toughness); without much warning the song turns around into a spectrally semi-psychedelic coda, something of a hallmark of the latter day sound of the band, and with good reason - they happen to be very good at it. After Image is the halfway break, a pause for reflection that showcases the range of the instrumental touches that pervade throughout the record and provide a kind of sonic canvas, a primer that creates a textural depth and helps the foreground hang together: wordless multi-tracked backing vocals, winding keyboard lines, wheezing melodica, burbling electronic touches and innumerable other instrumental details.
The ascent recommences with the most sumptuous piece in The Pastels’ oeuvre to date, Kicking Leaves melodically and lyrically swoons, and features a string arrangement by fellow Glaswegian Craig Armstrong that manages to be very much to the fore without being cloying or saccharine. It’s the most beautiful passage in a record full of beautiful passages. Wrong Light features an esoteric sing-along moment courtesy of Mr Pastel “Please don’t show/The wrong light/We are the shadows of the night” and a jauntily oscillating flute line, sounding la bit like a lost track from Two Sunsets, albeit crisper than much of that album’s soft-focus psychedelia.
Tom Crossley’s flute is also showcased particularly effectively, as is Alison Mitchell’s trumpet, on the brooding title track. The tone of the instrumental is unexpectedly dark, guitar chords clang against a driving rhythm section. It’s a song that bears a furrowed brow, a determined last push towards the peak. It could easily be the theme to a lost Franco-Tartan film noir, and it’s a bit of a surprise, a chiaroscuro impression that throws the rest of the record into sharp relief, panoramic and breathtaking.
Come to the Dance rounds the album off with a party, all buoyant vocal melodies and strident guitar, the party at the peak, and rightly so - Slow Summits is worth celebrating, as well as a celebration in itself. The Pastels may no longer make quite the polarising racket they emerged with in 1982, but the vivacity rendered in their earlier work remains, and while the music is a little bit subtler, a bit more crafted, that same spirit definitely carries through. This record is affecting and infectious, warm and energetic. Whether the wait has been four, ten or sixteen years by your count, Slow Summits gives the impression that the same interval again would be worth the wait. That doesn’t mean that anyone wants such a long wait for the next one, of course, but there’s clearly something to be said for taking your time.
Slow Summits is out now on CD and LP on Domino Records.