It’s all change in Mystery Jets world, and not just because of the departure of Kai Fish. Even with the dreamy textures of third record ‘Serotonin’, the Eel Pie Men were always the most quintessentially English of bands. So the news that they’d decamped to Texas and ‘gone Americana’ was cause for us to do a concerned ear-prick.
“All we brought on the plane were the guitars on our backs,” Blaine Harrison has said, “so we ended up borrowing all this amazing valve gear from an old guy called Jack who ran a little studio up in the hills – which is why the songs sound the way they do. In the daytime we wrote lyrics on the porch and in the evenings a family of deer would gather in the backyard to hear us play.”
All this and a title that puns off a 1978 Springsteen classic. Troubling folly or genius move? Why don’t we find out, readers?
New territory from the off, starting off as dusty and Springsteenian as the title would suggest. Building up soft, reverby guitar, but climbing into giddy windswept romantic drama almost straight away. Lyrically, here a not un-Bosslike lyric about two apparently doomed lovers finding redemption through the never-ending landscape, and dreaming about a time “when the debris comes falling from the sky, heaven will still be ours.”
“I went to the desert because I wanted to find my pistol / I wanted to find out what it feels like to be invincible,” groans Blaine as he continues out into the unknown, a world of truckstops and Mustang ranges, and references to ’40 bucks’. It’s drama is beautiful, but also eerie and creeping. A love song, but a dangerous one, like that nice girl from Two Doors Down has moved to a truckstop filled with toothless, meth-addled degenerates. “I want you to love me as if you’ve got no principles.” Ooer.
Once again, a study in burnt sienna, drenched in reverb and gin. This time Blaine emerges, seeking salvation: “I was once a kid with a pure and innocent soul / So deliver me from sin / Forgive me rock and roll.” But the way the song then cascades upward, approaching crescendo as it goes, suggests that Blaine probably won’t be forgiven very soon.
Things take an even gentler turn with an all-out country-folk. The themes are familiar now, dreams of stretching out into the open road, etc, but this time it gallops and builds into something dramatic and expansive but yet, perhaps just a tiny bit pretentious. The title seems to relate to a minor Texan legal firm, although this may just be a Google co-incidence.
And back to more familiar jets territory we go, rather resembling ‘Young Love’. A relationship’s final embers smoulder as the record collection is divided. The girl is allowed to keep ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ by ABC, and ‘It’s A Shame About Ray’ by The Lemonheads, ‘No Need To Argue’ by The Cranberries and ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’ by Belle And Sebastian. He wants to keep ‘Remain In Light’ by Talking Heads, ‘Country Life’ by Roxy Music, ‘The Aeroplane Over The Sea’ by Neutral Milk Hotel and ‘The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society’. Fair choices. Really. For all that, it’s a jolly thing riddled with "sha la las" and at least the suggestion that this relationship might survive through the power of song. Aaw.
Bee Gees? Yes, it does sound rather like a country rock Bee Gees. And as it turns out there is little wrong with that. Why one would name a disco love song of sorts after a comet is a mystery that will no doubt reveal itself in the fullness of time.
And back down into despondency, as this blues-infused funeral dirge unfurls, with once again resorts to a higher power. With a straight face, it sounds like he’s Got God this time. “I’m not like all the other people with their skinny coffees and their Nurofen,” he navel gazes, but the song then takes on a gorgeous psychedelic lilt as it floats along and opens up. “Bring me back as something beautiful,” begs Blaine as the chorus climaxes. Blaine has turned Hindu? Gorgeous all the same.
A beautiful, lilting female vocal from Sophie Rose can’t disguise the fact that this pretty, vague, sixties-flecked love song is kind of twee after the drama that has gone before.
Valve organs aside, this one is actually a fairly boring for the most part. Or maybe that’s just a clever ruse to lull you into a woozy vacant trance. Because at the end, quite bizarrely and beautifully, it ascends into a gospel outro, “Mother Mary, are you gonna save me? Mother Mary, you know I get so lonely.”
The centerpiece – in length certainly at six-and-a-half minutes. But even in veering towards prog textures, and name-checking natural, physical and mystical mysteries like the Marfa Lights, lost octaves above human hearing, and the sword of Damocles, it’s purposeful enough to carry all of that off. “Take me to the edge, I’m not scared, and if we fall off it doesn’t matter, we’ll do it all again.” It sounds like Blaine is cutting loose after all the spiritual soul-searching that has come before. Deep man, but it’s one of the most accomplished things Mystery Jets have put their names to. Full disclosure: I myself have been lost in Austin with the Mystery Jets. At South By Southwest years back, I couldn’t get a cab after a hotel room party with them and 80s Matchbox, and I had to sleep on the floor.
And to finish, the proper stripped-back one, live from the front porch. Heartfelt, confessional, bruised and beautiful, it rounds off ‘Radlands’ on a quiet note, but after taking you on quite a journey, they rock you to sleep with gentle care.
Well, there’s certainly no way that Kai can have decided to leave over a drop in quality. ‘Radlands’ could have been a dangerous gamble, and certainly it barely feels like the same band at time. But it’s a brave and very often beautiful progression. There’s little in the way of ‘Two Doors Down’ jollity, but this sounds as quality as anything they’ve done. It could turn out to be even better.