It’s been quite a while since there was a Pastels album. I remember the week Illumination came out, standing in Ashton Lane, Glasgow, being informed by one of my sister’s friends that the The Verve were the best band in the world, and knowing that this could not possibly be. In nearby Byres Road green vinyl copies sat proudly in Fopp, but I probably bought it in John Smith’s, where Stephen had his proto-Monorail record section (a whole floor! In the middle of a book shop! How did that ever come about?) At the time Illumination seemed a continuation, rather than a culmination, of the incredible records which preceded it. The joy and abandon of Truckload of Trouble fed into Mobile Safari, on which Stephen’s ‘feeling of excitement when I plug in my guitar’ (thanks Brogues!) built into such an unstoppable run of wonderful songs. Illumination was more ambitious, more concerned with assembling a coherent texture which reflected the band’s mindset. So it was beautiful, gentle, wide-eyed. It was modest and muted in the way it didn’t set out to grab your attention, but epic in the collaborative instrumentation it used to get to being modest and muted. Just as Chekhov gradually dispensed with the melodramatic gunshot in the final act over the course of his plays (it went completely with The Cherry Orchard), so The Pastels grew out of that ’80s indie pop production technique of playing a single clanging chord to emphasise each first beat of the bar over already compressed drums. It was still present (just about) on Mobile Safari, but by Illumination they were sure enough of themselves to leave it behind and go stratospheric.
Having said that, I’m not comfortable with the way Domino refer to Illumination as a masterpiece at every opportunity. More than most bands, The Pastels are about momentum, process, collaboration. Their song ‘Yoga’ starts: ‘It might not last, so we’re gonna record everything’, but recording is a double edged sword: it captures, but it also freezes. Maybe this has something to do with the long silence. But whatever. It doesn’t matter now.
And Two Sunsets? I think I’m going to struggle. It is, as it had to be, so tall I can’t get over it, so wide I can’t get around it, so deep I can’t get under it. It washes over every border, drowns every boundary. It is alive in ways a record from twelve years ago just can’t be, masterpiece or not. Opener ‘Tokyo Glasgow’ is a development of the music they did for the play Do I Mean Anthing To You Or Are You Just Passing By?, with added ‘ah’s sung by Katrina and Saya, and what appears to be a panpipe (perhaps it is actually something more Japanese, signifying the ‘Tokyo’ part?), which had me worried for a while because how can a panpipe be acceptable after muzak appropriated the instrument? Alison’s trumpet and the slow tempo make it sound like something from The Blue Nile’s Hats, but flecked with details ‘moulded by human hands’, as Jon Dale puts it. It is also the closest the record gets to the Last Great Wilderness soundtrack sound, and it sets up the flow of songs which constitute the first half of the record.
‘Two Sunsets’ itself is the most Pastels-like Tenniscoats song here: slow and tender, lit up by Saya’s fresh melody and that incredible confidence in the delivery it was such a revelation to see at their recent show in Glasgow. She can knock you to pieces and put you back reinforced with that voice. She leads with the singing on ‘Song for a Friend’, too, but one verse in Stephen takes over: ‘In the places we would be / Thoughts of you come back to me’, which is the kind of simple, affectionate song it is. Later on, back with Saya, comes the song’s most arresting image: ‘Your guitar still where you left it over by the willow tree / Sometimes when the wind is blowing, it plays your song for me’. Makes me think of Nagisa Ni te, for some reason. This song is where Saya’s, Katrina’s and Stephen’s voices come together to best effect, and the collaboration is at its strongest.
‘Vivid Youth’ is the second in an occasional series of Pastels songs about The Vandalism We Used To Do When We Were Young, following on from the as-yet-unreleased ‘Don’t Wait Too Long’, which is about graffiti-ing gravestones. With this one they turn their attention to burning trees, or at least that’s what I picked up from the line ‘We’ve tortured a tree and the smoke swirls back to me’. And then: ‘Paper mill, there’s a firework on its way / Epicurean arson its heart’s in flames again’. ‘Epicurean’? Wikipedia reckons:
In the Epicurean view, the highest pleasure (tranquillity and freedom from fear) was obtained by knowledge, friendship and living a virtuous and temperate life.
Virtuous and temperate arson?* What do you mean, Katrina? Gorgeous song, though. Her voice smoky and relaxed, backed by a minimal, tripping Gerard Love riff. Not a song by someone trying to out-masterpiece her masterpiece, and all the better for it.
There is much else to love: Stephen’s reading of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘About You’ (frustratingly, the only song on which he sings lead, apart from a verse and a chorus in ‘Song for a Friend’), his voice caressing the words in a way which seems new, singing ‘the raindrops beat out of time’ deliberately out of time. There is the Tenniscoats’ old (great, noble, beautiful) song ‘Mou Mou Rainbow’ reborn, with less of a freakout ending, hypnotic like ‘Dark Side of Your World’. ‘Boats’ revisits Illumination territory with its Aggi-imitation bass (slightly too many notes!) and ‘G12 Nights’ ending. Saya’s songs on side two help to vary the pace, her ‘Sodane’ is the most goofily fun thing here (it’s been a while since The Pastels did goofy fun, they used to be so good at it), and is that Ueno on backing vocals? Closer ‘Start Slowly so we Sound Like a Loch’ is the refracted Scotland of my childhood holidays, my grandmother’s paintings. It is sea anemones in rock pools, barnacles on boats. Before I heard it I wondered whether Two Sunsets could possibly live up to expectations, but it doesn’t try to, and therefore it does. A new Tenniscoats record is always a cause for celebration, but more than that, this time, it is so great to have The Pastels back.
* My dictionary gives a different definition for ‘epicurean’ with a lower case ‘e’: ‘devoted to sensual pleasures’, which makes more sense.