The three fellows in the Danish indie-rock band Mew have described their music as “pretentious art rock” or “the world’s only indie stadium band.” Thank goodness such descriptions are rather tongue-in-cheek, because folks might get the wrong idea. “Pretentious art rock” might cause one to think that Mew’s music is rather exclusionist and elitist, when nothing could be further from the truth.
There are some elements to Mew’s sound that could turn off potential listeners, such as singer/guitarist Jonas Bjerre’s high-pitched vocals, the band’s lyrics, which are often full of myth-like fairy tale imagery, or the sometimes bombastic arrangements that often verge on — gasp! — epic prog-metal. But if folks these days are prepared to greet another similarly falsetto-led band that utilizes their own imaginary language as something akin to the Second Coming, than I think it’s perfectly reasonable to cut Bjerre and his mates a little slack.
And The Glass Handed Kites may verge into stadium band territory from time to time, thanks to the band’s love of massive, explosive riffs and thrashing rhythms. But by and large, the album is a solid mixture of hard and soft, quiet and loud; there’s a little something in here for everyone. “Circuitry Of The Wolf” may kick off the album with crunchy guitar wolfs and choral voices, but stately piano melodies also shine out amidst all of the distortion, lending a refined, even stately air to the song.
Much of the focus on the album will probably be placed on its mid-section, primarily the triptych of “Apocalypso,” “Special,” and “The Zookeeper’s Boy,” and for good reason. These three songs — all of them singles — find the band diving headlong into the more extreme, heavier aspects of their sound.
“Apocalypso” was the first Mew song I ever heard, and it remains one of my faves — a perfect blend of ultra-melodic metal riffs that usually cause me to strike any number of ridiculous rock god poses when I’m by myself (a good thing, mind you), proggy synthesizers that seem to beaming in from some long lost Rush album, and Bjerre’s voice striving towards somewhere in the upper atmosphere as his lyrics stray from pensive laments (“Black waves come/And so fear me”) to mythic hope (“Waltz with me, courageously/We are dancing, dancing/We will not die/Our days are multiplied”).
“Special” is head-over-heels in every way, from the stomping, infectious rhythms and ping-ponging guitar lines to the lyrics (“You’re special/You’re like a rocket through me/Oh you’re special/You’re a rocket to me”). But “The Zookeeper’s Boy” goes even further, with two false starts (including one that could’ve been co-penned with Robert Smith circa Wish) before exploding with Bjerre’s voice and lyrics at their fay-est.
Depending on your perspective so far, the fact that lyrics like “You’re tall just like a giraffe/You have to climb to find its head/But if there’s a glitch/You’re an ostrich/You’ve got your head in the sand” and “Answer me truthfully/Do the clouds kiss you?/With meringue-colored hair/I know they cannot” are so fanciful and capricious they’ll be stuck in your head for the whole day will either bring a smile to your face… or make you feel really sick. And that’s to say nothing of the song’s chorus, where Bjerre wonders, “Are you my lady?” with such earnestness (and high-pitched-ness), it’s like your favorite Journey moments rolled into one.
But paying too much attention to these songs might distract from the album’s second half, which finds the band getting a bit more pensive while still rocking out. “The Seething Rain Weeps For You” is a lament for a passing friend, as Bjerre haltingly sings, “Saying goodbye now/Looking at friends/A lump comes to my throat/Hearing them all speak of you” in his effortless falsetto amidst soaring synths and searing guitars.
The album’s final two songs grow even starker and more contemplative, verging on the sort of bombastic-yet-emotional territory that the Flaming Lips documented so well on The Soft Bulletin. Indeed, the Lips often seem like a very apt comparison for Mew as a whole, as both bands enjoy huge, orchestral arrangements that merely embrace shivering human sentiment. On “White Lips Kissed,” Bjerre distantly laments “Things that are supposed to mean lots/Leave you cold/And with a malady of the soul” over martial drums and forlorn synths. The lyrics may be laughingly awkward, but they work thanks to the band’s overwhelming earnestness.
The same holds for the final track, “Louise Louisa,” where all of the album’s bombast and epic-ness is stripped away to reveal one final sentiment. For an album so over-the-top and excessive as this one, there’s something courageous about Bjerre distilling everything down to this poignant, uncertain request, wrapped in a falsetto that seems heartbreaking stripped and naked, as if this is the core of the band’s otherwise overwrought music: “I’m in a car/I don’t know where we are headed for/Stay with me/Don’t want to be alone.”
And there’s nothing pretentious about that.