Remember Psyence Fiction
? UNKLE's first album was hyped to the high heavens, only to be remembered more for the involvement of DJ Shadow and Thom Yorke than for its songs, melodies or atmospherics. That was 1998. Now, six years later, James Lavelle has rounded up a new batch of contributors (including Stone Roses vocalist Ian Brown, Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme, Massive Attack's 3D, Brian Eno and Jarvis Cocker) and given it another go. Predictably, it's a different affair. Unexpectedly, it's a better one.
Instead of being bound by moribund break-beats and moody atmospherics, Lavelle made the move to more upbeat surroundings. Half of Never, Never, Land's songs could easily be found in next Friday's playlist at your local club; the other half would be for the car ride home.
The album begins on a weak note -- a spoken word address about the ups and downs of life. Thankfully, it's only a minute long, after which "Eye for an Eye" rips away any doubts about where the album is going. Richard File's vocals and acoustic guitar slowly build the tension at each repetition of the borrowed title phrase (like most of the song's lyrics, it's drawn from "Ball of Confusion"), while the orchestrations roil beneath it, slowly building in amplitude and anger, until everything drops out. We're told, "Where you're going, you're not coming back from." That's when the drums and bass kick in.
From here onward, the mix stays steady, alternating chill-out tracks with rockers. "In a State" begins with a busy piano figure, which quickly dies and is reborn as a processed acoustic guitar strum and an excellently reverbed vocal. Of course, the drums and bass kick in, but they're simple, uptempo, not quite danceable -- very Everything But The Girl. This is roughly the same modus operandi employed on "I Need Something Stronger" and "What Are You To Me?", both of which are excellent background head-nodders.
Lavelle and File seem to have made a conscious choice never to let introspection get in the way of a good beat. "Safe In Mind", "Panic Attack", "Invasion" and "Reign" utilize understated orchestrations and atmospherics that push the four-on-the-floor drums and heavy bass to the forefront. Like all good dancefloor material, the vocals are appreciated but almost unnecessary.
That said, Never, Never, Land's best song is neither danceable nor ignorable. "Glow" is hazily shoegazer, with the ethereal vocals of South's Joel Cadbury over soft strings and a barely noticeable rhythm section. It is unlike anything else on the album, and instantly memorable.
Few listeners were clamoring for another UNKLE album; fewer still expected it to be worth listening to once it was released. Happily, Never, Never, Land not only escapes the expectations and pitfalls that dogged Psyence Fiction, but succeeds on a new set of strengths.