If you’d told me two years ago that The Mystery Jets would make one of the best pop albums of 2008, I think I would’ve scoffed. Here was a band who claimed King Crimson to be a primary influence, and who never met 17 disparate musical ideas that they didn’t like and want to put all into the same song. Not that they didn’t have some good songs ("You Can’t Fool Me Dennis" made my Best Singles of 2005 list) but The Mystery Jets were just too damn inclusive.
But dammit there’s no denying the pop smarts found all over their new album, Twenty One, where nearly every song could be a single. It’s been a long time since I listened to one album repeatedly, nonstop, like this. It’s all I listened to on the way too and and from SXSW. I listen to it in the shower, while doing the dishes, on the way to work, just about everywhere I have control of the music, and it would probably still be in prime rotation if it wasn’t for the new Shortwave Set album.
So what happened? Was it the exit of the dad? I’ve joked that his response to hearing any new song brought to the band was "That’s not how Yes would’ve done it!" But I doubt that’s really the case. Something tells me he probably just bowed out, letting them be a truly young band. (More on this in a minute.)
My guess is a combination of producer Errol Alkan bringing his pop sensibilities to the group, as well as a maturation of songwriting. Certainly those sirens that kick off album-opener "Hideaway" were his idea. And probably the saxaphone on the soon-to-be-a-single "Two Doors Down" which I’m guessing is the song drummer Kapil Trivedi is talking about when he said "If the song sounded like an ’80s Whitney Houston song, [Alkan would] go for it and bring out the keys to make it top-line."
As someone who suffered through the ’80s Sax Nightmare firsthand, I must admit I cringed the first time I heard the sax fadeout of "Two Doors Down" (straight out of "I Wanna Dance With Somebody"), an otherwise near-perfect pop song with the kind of massive chorus that you’re singing along with before the song is half over. Maybe it’s because I’ve listened to it so much, but I’ve come to not even notice it. There’s more sax on the album, though thankfully most of it is more of the kind that Duran Duran or the Beat used — more of a sexy bleat (is that possible?) the kind you can’t trace back to "Baker Street." The kind that doesn’t immediately grate on your nerves. You can hear it on "MJ," which follows "Two Doors Down," and sounds more than a little like the Police’s "Don’t Stand So Close to Me" though filtered through DD or General Public.
But enough about saxaphones. We’re talking really focused songwriting here, to the point seems like they were trying to write Big Pop Hits. That’s not a bad thing, if done right, which I think they mostly did. Taking a page from the Glen Ballard/Aerosmith late-80s approach to chart success, nearly half the songs start with the chorus. Or in the case of the current single, "Young Love," I’m not exactly sure what the chorus is. Here’s the charming video:
The "If I only knew your name…" part starts off like it’s just a verse, but then they come back to it over and over… which kind of makes it the chorus. But it doesn’t sound like a chorus the way that "Two Doors Down" or "Half In Love with Elizabeth" do, but nothing else is really chorus-like, either, though… I’m still not sure. But it’s a great song and maybe a good example of what works on the album. It’s got a killer bassline (how often do you hear that about a pop song anymore?) and guitars that never settle for just strumming. Lead guitarist William Rees, who actually takes lead vocals on "Young Love," is a really inventive player (doesn’t use a pick, not that that’s inventive, just hard on the fingers) sort of in the same way Johnny Marr was in the Smiths. The second time the chorus come in, Alkan adds this shimmery little keyboard thing which pulls you along, then halfway though in comes Laura Marling who adds a whole new element to the song.
"Young Love" is also a good example, lyrically, of the album which really seems to be about what it is to be young. Most of it dealing with matters of the heart, but just also that fearless, youthful spirit we all have before responsibility kicks in. "Please don’t turn me into a man," Blane Harrison sings on the Dylan-esque "Umbrellahead." "I Don’t want to see my skin fold. Please won’t you keep me as a I am / People look so lonely when they’re old." Which might have been a bit hard to sing with your dad on stage next to you.
I think I could go through song-by-song, dissecting all the cool little touches on Twenty One but this post has become rambly enough. The album doesn’t seem to be coming out in America anytime soon, I’m not even sure they have an American label at this point (Dim Mak’s page doesn’t seem to have been updated in over a year). Every record store I’ve been to in New York has given me blank stares when I ask about it.** But you can get it digitally — high quality, DRM-free MP3s — via 7 Digital. This will definitely be in my Top Ten of 2008… how high remains to be seen. One more taste of the album, plus a remix, for you: