Sound — 9
To anyone who listens to both Slowdive and Radiohead, it is difficult to believe that that Radiohead's Kid A was not inspired by Slowdive's Pygmalion. This album by Slowdive features a shift from Slowdive's hazy shoegazer dream-pop to a spacious experimental ambient style displaying electronic and minimalist influences. Gone are the verse/chorus/verse/chorus structures of Slowdive's earlier efforts; on this album, the band abandons almost all traces of pop, replacing the vocal hooks of old songs like "Allison" and "When The Sun Hits" with manipulated vocal samples a la Aphex Twin. Several of the songs recall the more experimental moments of their previous effort "Souvlaki" with Eno-influenced pieces that begin as sparse smudges of sound and grow in intensity until they come to a dense, layered climax. Others, such as the brief but heartbreakingly beautiful "Cello", are clear predecessors to the sounds of post-rock groups such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur Ros, and A Silver Mt. Zion. Slowdive was dropped from Creation immediately following Pygmalion's release for failing to produce a pop album that could rival the growing Britpop trend. The band dismemebered and reformed into dream-pop/folk act Mojave 3, leaving Pygmalion as their final statement in ways of ambient music, and it is a statement that remains a highly relevant piece of work to ambient, experimental, and minimalist artists.
Lyrics — 9
One near-universal characteristic of the shoegazing scene was the lack of importance attributed to lyrics (british quartet Lush have admitted to not even knowing what their own lyrics were supposed to mean). This never really applied to Slowdive, who often carefully crafted lyrics that had as much emotional impact as the cascading waves of sound that surrounded them. "Pygmalion" is no exception, but it demonstrates a much more abstract style of songwriting, focusing on repeated phrases (the lyrics of the song "Crazy for You" consist only of the words "crazy for love" repeated dozens of time) and surrealistic storytelling. Guitarists Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead share vocal duties just as they did on Slowdive's previous efforts, but there are certain departures from their earlier reverb-soaked harmonies. On the opening track "Rutti", Halstead's voice is higher in the mix than it has ever been, and Goswell's swooning melody on "Miranda" sounds mystical and exotic, clearly borrowing elements from ethereal wave artists such as Curve and Love Spirals Downwards. Where Slowdive's vocal work was always subtle and subdued, they are placed in much sharper relief on Pygmalion and focus on chillingly beautiful and haunting melodies.
Overall Impression — 9
It is difficult to compare "Pygmalion" to anything that came before it, and to anything that has come since. While it obviously draws influence from both minimalist composers like Brian Eno and from fellow Shoegazing acts such as Lush, Curve, and Ride, the album is cearly of an entirely different breed. It achieves a level of sonic innovation that was completely unprecedented, realising Brian Eno's vision of ambient music as something that has volume, that can be taken into account or ignored as a physical object can. The obvious stand-out tracks include "Crazy For You", "Miranda", and "Cello" (all discussed earlier), as well as "Trellisaze", a slow-moving, floating affair with a hypnotic, trickling lo-fi drum beat and "Blue Skied an' Clear", a hauntingly beautiful track that recalls the pop tendencies of Slowdive's early work, featuring a densely layered atmospheric sound that builds under Halstead's repeated vocal line "You say love, and it sounds so sweet". Though it is itself a departure from the shoegazing sound, "Pygmalion" is by far the most challenging and ultimately rewarding album to have emerged from the British shoegazing scene, and it is one that continues to have relevance almost fifteen years after its original release.