Sound — 7
Despite originating from Scandinavia, a region of the world where death metal is their prime music export, Mew decided to bring their soft and dreamy indie rock to the table, which would snowball into a world-class music export soon enough. With their first two studio albums, "A Triumph of Man" and "Half the World Is Watching Me," only being small releases in their home country of Denmark, they would sign with Sony to release their third album and commercial debut, "Frengers," to much avail. This success and expanding audience for Mew would not only prompt re-releases of their first two albums, but they'd also get the attention of Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis to collaborate with on their fourth album, the more progressive-minded "And the Glass Handed Kites," which would further establish the band as indie darlings. Their fifth album, "No More Stories...," would invest even more in prog grandiosity via a hefty symphonic endeavor, containing the biggest instrumental arrangement Mew have ever utilized.
Though plenty has changed for the band since "No More Stories..." - they left Sony and also reunited with Johan Wohlert, their original bassist who left after "And the Glass Handed Kites" - Mew are still continuing down a musical path gravitating less towards a conventional indie rock structure and more towards elaborate soundscapes; and with their sixth album, "+ -," a lot of distance has been made down that path, which is microcosmically displayed throughout the arc of the album. With the beginning segment of the album putting the spotlight on the band's instruments - from the skilled triplet and hammer-on guitar riffs in "Satellites" to the active drumline of "Witness" - the peripheral layers of synthetic melodies and percussion grow larger in prominence. These shiny synth dimensions substantially expand upon the folky-at-heart "The Night Listener," where special guest Kimbra duets with frontman Jonas Bjerre, as well as conjuring a half funk/half easy listening sound for "Making Friends," and the sparse jazzy guitars provide negative space for slow-burning reverberations in "Clinging to a Bad Dream."
After "My Complications" provides a sizable reload of rock energy - which includes Bloc Party's guitarist Russell Lissack donating some indie rock guitar lines to the track - the synths take back control in the smooth and wistful ambient cut of "Water Slides." The same instrumental hierarchy goes for "Interview the Girls," though the arrangement generally feels recycled (like the jangling tambourine and bell layers, or the constant humming analog lines) and ultimately unengaging. The final stretch of the album is where Mew get most elaborate, though they overshoot the mark. The penultimate "Rows" clocks in at over ten minutes, but by touting several tricks and transformations - from guitarist Bo Madsen running the gamut of his pedal-board to the kaleidoscopic shift of ambient pads to keyboard melodies in the latter half of the song, which leads into a faster epilogue of rhythm instruments - this unfurling juggernaut of a song justifies its size. But that size duly renders the low-geared jazzy outro song of "Cross the River on Your Own" superfluous - also being a hefty track in length, not even the power ballad crest can save it from feeling like an overindulgent slog.
Lyrics — 5
While Mew's musical side is continuing to expand, Bjerre's lyrical capabilities are still at an unadventurous plateau of expectations. Bjerre doesn't do much to establish an intricate linearity fitting with the progressive mindset of the music his lyrics travel alongside with, and continues with painting compartmentalized narratives of troubled relationships. Generally, his style of articulating said scenarios and emotions is very what-you-see-is-what-you-get, from the constricting relationship of "The Night Listener" being summed up with the ham-handed line "Your hug becomes a straitjacket now" and the "if you love somebody, set them free" sentiment of the closing "Cross the River on Your Own" being just as face value as the song title itself, to the elementary expository verse "A swiveling chair / I never rode a motor bike / And I don't want to / It's not the kind of thing I like" in "Clinging to a Bad Dream" blooming into the existential crisis of a staid life in the chorus "It's always trial, trial / When you no longer believe / This stage life has set for you." Themes throughout the album are also unsubstantial and rarely recurring, and in a few cases to shake things up, Bjerre throws in some off-color curveballs that ultimately flop - like "Oh let me go, old dinosaur" in "Waterslides," and "You'll wear a thistle face / I'll be a ninja / We'll be dead all the same" in "Rows."
Overall Impression — 6
There's no doubt that Mew packed a lot of aspirations into "+ -," and with it being such a long time since "No More Stories...," the jam-packed grandeur of "+ -" definitely wants to make up for lost time. However, the meticulous soundscapes Mew craft aren't fool-proof - whether in the case of the repetitive sound layers, the overly extensive song ideas that never finish but just fade out, or the meager lyrics, Mew's investment in compositional elaboration makes the overall output of "+ -" top-heavy rather than optimally balanced. The album may have benefitted from some better editing, but nevertheless, it still brings forth some strong songs.