The story of Mystery Jets’ recent history is an inspirational one, both musically and autobiographically.
A Billion Heartbeats was set for release at the end of September last year, yet was put on hold as singer Blaine Harrison’s spina bifida flared up, forcing him into hospital for an emergency operation. With inevitable ironic timing, the band’s single Hospital Radio had been released two months’ prior, giving Harrison a sharp reminder of what he was singing about in real time.
It says much for the band’s spirit that the redrafted press release for the new album mentions little of this. Instead the story of A Billion Heartbeats is retold, the band’s sixth long player used as a mirror for the many protests of 2017, as seen from Harrison’s Trafalgar Square dwellings. Yet this is not an angry album; there are no futile rants. Instead we find strength in numbers and belief in the power of change. In these most uncertain times, it strikes a chord with unerring accuracy.
Musically it is arguably the best thing the band have done – which is saying something, with their output on a steadily upward curve from the impish early albums to 2016 and the ambitious Curve Of The Earth. Yet there was always music of substance around these early poppy numbers, and we see that in spades here. Only a brief blast of Screwdriver is needed to establish the road the band are travelling. Theirs is now a ballsy, driven sound, invigorating as a blast of water full in the face, while Harrison sings from the front line of ‘hooligans in uniform’ and ‘hate masquerading as pride’.
Petty Drone is a similarly upfront number, a confident statement of intent if ever there was one, while the big guns keep coming with the effortlessly epic History Has Its Eyes On You, Harrison’s vocals sounding a note of caution.
Throughout the album the band achieves the tricky balance of epic, rock-driven songs that are never a vehicle for the lead singer’s ego, with no song embodying this more than the calling card Hospital Radio. A paean to the NHS, it really should be adopted as an anthem of gratitude for those helping us through these unprecedented times. Written by Harrison from a patient’s-eye view at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, it comes from straight from the wired-up heart. Its key moment, a build of layered vocals singing ‘hold on to me’, explodes in the final chorus: “When you’re lying in your bed, old, soiled and screaming, wondering where the hell it went wrong, wired up to keep your cold, cold heart beating, we will be the pill on the end of your tongue.” The accompanying rush of drums are a thrilling burst of electricity, the patient’s cold heart racing by the end of it.
There are a few hundred heartbeats’ worth of repose on this album too. Endless City asks ‘could I ever step off the treadmill that I’m moving along’ – a question we have all surely asked ourselves in the last few weeks – while the slightly sprawling Cenotaph reaches a peak with its soaring vocals. The closing Wrong Side Of The Tracks is also more spacious, but ends in defiant mood. “Don’t you ever stop,” sings Harrison. “Don’t you ever look back.”
The delay in release of A Billion Heartbeats has brought it right in step with our times. Its relevance is uncanny, yet it offers a clenched fist of resolve, a musical coping mechanism. To be able to write that after Harrison’s most recent hospitalisation is heartening indeed – and Lord knows we need some inspiring creative stories right now.