For some groups, when a key member leaves, it’s a delayed death sentence. They become defined by their missing piece. When, earlier this year, prog pop Danes Mew announced their first record since the departure of guitarist and founder member Bo Madsen in 2015, fears ran high among the fan community that the band might become yet another collective wandering the earth with a hole in its heart. This was underlined by the bizarre choice of album closer Carry Me To Safety as first single. A string- and synth-led anthem, it felt oddly by numbers for the oft-complex Danes. What’s more, an Edge-like, delay-laden guitar outro was so obscured in the mix, it seemed they were embarrassed by its presence and overall the track appeared to noticeably lack Madsen’s scything six-string. Mistake or misdirection? We’re not sure. What we can say with certainty is that Visuals has far more to offer than this somewhat pallid taster would lead you to believe.
The album represents the quickest turnaround in Mew’s recording history, at just under two years since the respected +/-, and the immediacy is palpable, so perhaps it’s fair to say that there’s been some misinterpretation on the fan front. This is a new and different Mew, so if Madsen’s absence is clear, it’s because it’s meant to be.
The band – predominantly, we suspect, frontman Jonas Bjerre – have embraced the ensuing freedom and channelled it in precisely the opposite direction. Losing Madsen’s razor-like tone has rounded off the punk/indie rock edge to their sound, but in its place are rich, orchestral synths and infectiously exciting diversions into previously unexplored territory. Listen carefully and you can almost hear the trio yelling, ‘Look what’s over here!’ as the brass drops on Twist Quest’s funk and bongo verse, or as the trap beat lifts Learn Our Crystals into melodic euphoria. It’s not lacking in heft, either. Opener Nothingness And No Regrets tackles life, death and accomplishment (or lack thereof) as it supersizes vocalist Bjerre’s signature melodic skips over a galloping, distorted drum beat, while Candy Pieces All Smeared Out’s 8-bit battle bot intro registers Apocalypto levels of heaviness.
Mew have always been a band that thrive on contradiction and that wistful, melodic sensibility has not departed with Madsen. ‘Surely you see there are two versions of me,’ sings Bjerre on the aforementioned Candy Pieces…,‘One cuckoos itself and the other one lives free.’
That’s Visuals in a nutshell: not a mournful response to volatility, but a joyful celebration of persistence and reinvention – a smile in the face of life.