Mute Swan has kept busy since their last major release in 2016: performing at clubs around Tucson, releasing a handful of singles, touring across the nation, taking the stage at SXSW and even hosting livestream performances throughout 2020—damn near everything indie rockers can do, save for releasing a new album.
Now that non-hiatus is ending with the band releasing Only Ever, an album that balances chaos and melody, and was preceded by years of teasers. However, Mute Swan says there isn't too much of a stylistic shift on the new album, other than upping their production. Whereas previous albums attempted to capture their stage sound, Only Ever includes tracks and sounds that would be "impossible to accomplish live." A fitting style for a band embracing the "shoegaze" label—that noisy, multilayered rock genre named after guitarists staring at their feet because they use so many effects pedals.
Singles like "Burnt Almonds" and "Life-like Dream" are prime '90s rock worship, awash in grainy pastels, yet managing to balance sentiment with aggressive guitar lines. Some of those guitar tracks go one step further, being recorded into a handheld cassette player for an extra layer of distortion.
The new album features Mike Barnett on guitar and vocals, Prabjit Virdee on bass and vocals, Thomas Sloane on guitar and Roger Reed on drums. With recording starting in 2017, half of the songs were recorded at Dry Liver Studios and the other half at Frank Bair's studio downtown (now John Henry's). Over the years, multiple songs were overdubbed and re-recorded.
"A lot of guitars were re-recorded or samples from earlier demos were used. Drums were re-recorded and samples were added. Some of the vocals were re-recorded," Barnett said. "Sometimes I would take a pristine vocal recording and play it back into an old cassette recorder to dirty it up. And then the mixing process involved a lot of experimentation, which is what took the longest."
Because of the longer production cycle, the album was only mildly impacted by the pandemic. Barnett says the only real difference being that the band can't support the album with a tour or large release show. But the music is plenty enveloping even as a recording, with its whirring guitars and subtly psychedelic sound palette.
This style is shared in another single for the album, "Enough Fun," which features so many distorted layers, the whole thing would risk sounding disorienting if the vocal melodies buried at the core weren't so sweet. It's the only single that includes a music video, which itself is fittingly marred with a VHS haze. The band worked with local musician and artist Adan Martinez Kee for the video, who has experience with video tape formats and could match Mute Swan's aesthetic.
Despite sounding so upbeat and carefree, "Enough Fun" was written in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and the "flagrant disregard of activists." The band match this in the video by dressing up as various figures they view as power mongers: a billionaire, a police officer, a businessman and the pope.
"The lyrics point a finger at powerful figures in our society, who pretend to represent average people, but are in truth beholden to big money forces," Barnett said. "One of our favorite parts is at the end when the pope is petting his cat with a hundred dollar bill. It gets pretty ridiculous, but so does our power structure in America."
This is not to say Only Ever is an explicitly political album. Even the song "Sedative Sun," which deals with the opioid crisis, contains that mystical shoegaze blend of romance and heaviness, as opposed to the numb isolation one might expect from such lyrical themes. In fact, the band says their lyrics only come after the song is written, and serve as a way to make the abstract musical energy more concrete.
"Enough Fun" is one of the oldest songs on the album, originally released as a single in 2018. As such, it's the only single that appears different on the album, having been remixed to a generally brighter and larger sound than the original.
"I remember Frank and I were mixing that in his studio and then running outside to hear how it sounded in my car," Barnett said. "I really liked the dense, lo-fi sound we got for that, but then two years later I listened back and wanted to switch it up for the album version. I changed the guitar and bass tone a lot and Frank helped add space to the overall mix."
The sound pairs well with the associated album artwork, visual collages created by Tucson artist Gabriella Molina. Alongside the scattered and idyllic album cover, another places the members of Mute Swan on a bright, vaporous backdrop with no clear indication of which direction is up. Rather than attempting to orient themselves, Mute Swan blur into their own wash of color.