There’s still a hazy element to The Space Between Us, but it’s less prominent and not the defining feature of the album. This time around, the band is heading into much safer, almost commercial waters. It seems an unusual change of direction considering this is an album that details the slow breakdown of a relationship. If ever there were a subject to obscure with swathes of delay drenched guitars and squalls of noise, relationship breakdown would probably be close to the top of the list – just ask Kevin Shields.
So, the shoegaze influences are not quite as obvious this time around, yet despite this, the band still manages to create some quite stunning shimmering dream pop. Land’s vocals are much more prominent as he steps out of the shadows to prove what a fantastic singer he can be. Aside from adding another layer of sound, his heartfelt lyrics increase the emotional intensity simply by being discernable.
If there’s a problem with the album it’s that it occasionally strays into similar territory to bands such as Coldplay and Snow Patrol (oh, whatever happened to Snow Patrol). Of course this is not a problem for fans of those particular bands, but for some it can prove a considerable stumbling block. Take opening track Echo & Narcissus for example with its flickering guitar lines and vocal melody that is not so far away from Radiohead’s High And Dry. On first listen, it’s all very clean and inoffensive,making it easy to dismiss as one of those songs written to hit emotional triggers but with very little to say. Given time however, the song opens up considerably and is clearly a different entity to the songs written using the archetypal emotional-indie blueprint.
One of the Modern Painters’ strengths is to not edit themselves heavily or opt for the easy option of an uplifting payoff chorus. Instead, they allow songs to develop slowly, often leaving a central idea anchoring the entire song whilst layers build and fade. The Silver Medal employs this particular trick with breathy vocals, vibrato guitar and a buttoned down drumbeat. It’s all wonderfully hazy, and benefits considerably by borrowing from the more delicate sections of The Smiths song book.
Starcrossed/Butterfly Lovers employs a similar approach to The Silver Medal, with its swooning vocals and lazy, apathetic feel. Again there are elements of The Smiths lurking beneath the surface coupled with a creeping Celtic influence. Regardless of its inspiration, it’s all rather lovely. Unlike Lovelife which finds Land in emotive form with his lilting vocals cracking somewhat as he delivers his lines. Unfortunately, it drifts into soft-focus 80s territory which is at best, upsetting.
Things do get better however, Cherry Bark And Almonds is ghostly and tender, and evokes shades of Eno, whilst the lilting Eyes Wide Shut plays to Land’s vocal strengths allowing him to step forward as the focal point. Closing the album is Starfish Fucking which allows the band to really stretch out. It features Land’s most personal, biting lyrics and slowly develops from a straightforward singer/songwriter ballad into a poignant dreampop epic. At 13 minutes, it is something of a gamble, but the song morphs and grows until it pays off wonderfully.
There’s a lot to like about The Space Between Us. When Land and his Painters get the mix about right, this is exemplary dream pop. When the balance is even slightly off however, it sometimes feels just a little too clean and polished.