Sound — 5
It's been over ten years since Mew hit their breakthrough surge of success, where their signing with Sony Music brought the humble Danish indie rock band global acclaim with the release of 2003's "Frengers," 2005's "And The Glass Handed Kites," and 2009's "No More Stories..." Though it would take about six years for their next release after parting ways with Sony, that cooldown period didn't snuff out the band's flame, and while their 2015 album, "+ -," may have been more long-winded than their previous albums, it still proved that Mew were a force to be reckoned with in indie rock.
If the success of "+ -" was a reassuring next step for Mew, it would quickly be met with another snag. Shortly after the album's release, founding lead guitarist Bo Madsen left the band, and while that didn't slow down Mew in terms of making their seventh album, "Visuals," Madsen's absence makes for a fundamental difference in how Mew took their musical direction this time around. In a few cases, the band throw back to past albums like "And The Glass Handed Kites" and "No More Stories..." by bringing back wind instruments - horn sections break the mold of the band's expected indie rock sound in the ending interlude of "In A Better Place" and the bridge of "85 Videos," and guest saxophonist Marius Neset takes the spotlight in "Learn Our Crystals," and the jazzy "Twist Quest." That tinny, funky guitar riffing in "Twist Quest" is also mixed into the indie rock-oriented "Ay Ay Ay" to make for a decent fusion of styles, though the attempted mix of indie rock quaintness and heavy blues rock stomp in "Candy Pieces All Smeared Out" is a messy concoction.
More than anything, though, "Visuals" substantially back-seats their guitar power compared to their previous albums, likely due to Madsen's absence. Reconfiguring their instrumental hierarchy, the synthesizer elements that used to act as a supplement in their songwriting now act like load-bearing beams. While the new wave synth leads that pop up in "The Wake Of Your Life" and "85 Videos" are pretty straightforward additions to their admirable indie rock rhythms (Silas Utke Graae Jorgensen's drumming is as sharp as ever), sedated synth ballads like "Shoulders and "Zanzibar are skippable tracks, and other songs fall victim to an overload of synths that, when mixed with the nondescript guitars and thickly-layered vocals, sound like an overwhelming, grandiose mash of shiny tones, heard in "Nothingness And No Regrets" and "Carry Me To Safety."
Lyrics — 7
Frontman Jonas Bjerre is normally quite esoteric in his lyrics, and while some elusive symbolism comes up in "Visuals" (like the head-scratching hook in "Ay Ay Ay"), Bjerre throws in more lyrics that are easy to grasp. Whether lamenting on the grueling nature of love in "Candy Pieces All Smeared Out" ("The sharpest I've ever been / Is knowing the trouble that I'm in / And love is such a burden / A tiger balm to irritate the skin"), recalling tough but true lessons in "Twist Quest" ("Someone once said / To cherish the fall while you're up to it"), finding comfort in unfamiliar faces in "85 Videos" ("I'm most sincere when I'm talking to strangers / They somehow appear in my hour of defenselessness"), or submitting to loneliness in the face of society in "Carry Me To Safety" ("Those physical structures / Mountainous landscapes of colorful lights (I'm still lonely inside)"), Bjerre's more straightforward sentiments help his emotional articulation resonate stronger with the listener.
Overall Impression — 5
"+ -" suffered from meandering songwriting that indulged in itself too often, "Visuals" shows Mew learning from that by being more succinct in its songwriting this time around. However, "Visuals" shows a new set of problems that come with losing one of their key bandmates, and attempting to change musical direction in the wake of that. Mew's effort to fill in the spots where Madsen's strong guitar leads would be with synth-rich soundscapes and horn sections misses more than it hits, and ultimately, "Visuals" will be remembered as the album in the band's catalog that strayed too far away from the band's indie rock core.