Growing up hasn’t been easy for Eel Pie Island’s Mystery Jets, you suspect. The south London crew went from the ragged promise of 2006 debut ‘Making Dens’ to the shiny pop perfectionism of 2008’s ‘Twenty One’. Since then, however, progress has been frustratingly slow. 2010’s high-gloss mope ‘Serotonin’ sparked in places, but failed to set the charts ablaze and felt too much like a warm slug of flat cola after its predecessor’s heady fizz.
Then last year we had the debut from bassist Kai Fish, ‘Life In Monochrome’, which posed the question all side-projects ask – is your heart still in the day job? We got our answer when news of Kai’s exit struck like pantomime lightning early this month, and the Jets determined to fly on with the loss of a treasured engine. Erk! Can you feel the Han Solo-style bad feeling taking root in the pit of your stomach yet?
If so, you might want to look away now: ditching the synth-pop template of the last two records, sessions for ‘Radlands’ – laid down with Fish still reluctantly on board – took place in Austin, Texas, with frontman Blaine Harrison waxing lyrical about the town’s country music heritage and, gulp, pedal steel guitar on some of the tracks.
A star-spangled document of a band in decline, then? Not quite. Musically speaking, opening track ‘Radlands’ is less heartland rock and more Foals’ ‘Spanish Sahara’ in its slinking, melancholy guitar line. Harrison wades in with a horribly overcooked couplet in “I’ve heard that there’s a place where you go when you die/It’s a terribly overrated, horseshit-shaped hole in the sky”, but soon the band’s veering off in crunching rock fashion. Touches of pedal steel come in at the end, but it’s all in the service of a pretty rollicking tune.
‘Had Me At Hello’ rocks like a campy Neil Young circa ‘Down By The River’, while single ‘Someone Purer’ bolsters the guitar-heavy mood, its refrain of “give me rock’n’roll” a fine rallying cry for the record as a whole. What’s impressive here is the fun the boys seem to be having, which sits weirdly with our knowledge about Kai.
Country and western tune ‘The Ballad Of Emmerson Lonestar’ hovers awkwardly between Albarn-esque and Borrell-esque, though a house-tinged coda is equal parts silly and inspired. And ‘Greatest Hits’’ groove lifts wholesale from ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’, which is annoying, until a genius lyric about divvying up the record collection with an ex comes to the rescue (“No way you’re having ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’, you only listen to it when you’re pissed”) and the tune takes off.
‘The Hale Bop’’s shiny falsettos sound like a hillbilly Of Montreal – no really, it’s good – before the pace drops with dreamy ballad ‘The Nothing’ and ‘Take Me Where The Roses Grow’, a duet sung with Blaine’s other half, Sophie-Rose Harper. ‘Sister Everett’ is an ode to an evangelist lady guitarist William Rees met on a plane, channelling roots-era Stones, while slashing power ballad ‘Lost In Austin’ sounds like it’s eaten James Dean Bradfield for breakfast. Tart acoustic closer ‘Luminescence’ recalls an addled Gram Parsons: “It’s not the coke, it’s the lump in my throat that’s to blame”.
While other Brit rockers come over all starry-eyed and reverent when making their would-be Great American Album, ‘Radlands’ is about as authentically Yankee as Christian Bale’s mid-Atlantic drawl, and just dandy for it. Best pray it isn’t their swansong, y’all.