While change is inevitable—especially over the course of 20 years—Danish band Mew had its hand forced when founding guitarist Bo Madsen left in 2015 following the release of +-. As a result, the group is back to being a trio, as they were when bassist Jonah Wohlert took a break from 2006 to 2013. With no disrespect to Wohlert, Madsen’s guitar playing and arrangements were as signature to Mew’s sound as singer Jonan Bjerre’s vocals. Clearly they had a decision to make: carry on as before or blow the whole thing up? The answer, as Visuals (PIAS Recordings) reveals, is that destruction was the way to progression.
And that progression has come quickly. There were six years between +- and 2009’s No More Stories…, while Visuals follows +- after only two years. While not unprecedented, there is definitely a sense of urgency, perhaps also reflected in song length. The longest song on Visuals just breaks the five-minute mark, notable for a band that would throw down for seven to ten minutes at a time or have an entire album be technically one long song. But the most striking change and the one that may divide the band’s fanbase is that Mew has shrugged off its prog-rock tendencies and thrown its collective hat into the indie guitar-pop ring. While one could make an argument that the band has always had pop elements, this time they went all in. If you like your Mew stadium-sized and full of weird bits and bobs, you’re in for disappointment.
That’s not to say that Mew has become unrecognizable, but there’s more going on than just cosmetic changes. With Madsen gone, synths have a larger presence in the mix, with the guitar taking a less prominent role. Mew didn’t go completely glossy, but there’s no denying that songs like the surprisingly funky “Twist Quest” and “Candy Piece All Smeared Out,” even with its dirty guitar breakdowns, have put them in a different place.
Visuals is a really good record, but is it a good Mew record? That’s for fans to argue, but regardless, it’s definitely a step in a different direction. While perhaps not the soundtrack for head-trips, the album is as confident, assured, and interesting as anything the band has ever made.