The pop/prog weirdness, charming songwriting, and unexpected slow burn of Mystery Jets‘ debut album, 2006’s Making Dens, caused enough of a stir to put a bit of pressure on the next steps of the London quintet, and invites the inescapable “difficult second album” cliché to be placed on their collective shoulders. Having toured for almost two years, and having formed an unforeseen relationship with an electronic DJ legend, Mystery Jets return with their second album, Twenty One.
Twenty One’s production is the work of the aforementioned DJ, Erol Alkan, one of the biggest names in electronic music who is increasingly in demand for his remixes amongst the indie music scene.
Considering the producer’s background, one could be forgiven for expecting a hefty sound, with huge drums and heavy basslines – and certainly album opener Hideaway seems to suggest that.
The song starts with one of those sirens you hear in war zones when bombs are about to drop, which is apt seeing as Hideaway threatens to pummel anything in its path once it kicks in. The song is built around a synth bassline big enough to hear from space. Frenzied, fidgety guitars whip the verse as Blaine Harrison’s voice makes a welcome return, his passion tangible, the vocal patterning and melody compulsive. Three and half minutes of perfect, dynamite wielding pop swagger. Mystery Jets mean business.
Respite from such a battering is duly administered in the guise of Young Love, which camply tells the story of the after-effects of a one-night stand. Deliciously unravelling, jazzy guitar fills shimmer over driving drums and the trademark Mystery Jets layered vocal harmonies. Young Love also features a guest appearance from Laura Marling. Her voice is incorporated astutely and the result is beautiful. Marling is talked about a lot at the moment, and deservedly so.
And so we progress to Half In Love With Elizabeth and Flakes, the former a spine-tinglingly bittersweet affair, with a yearning chorus and addictive rhythms, the latter a fragile, tender indie song of the ilk that appears in a certain Mr Borrell’s wet dreams, and as good an example as any of the versatility and raw ability of Harrison’s voice.
By this point it’s becoming clear that any presumptions about big beats and beefy synths are spectacularly misguided. The more explicit theme is ’80s, in a big way. This is perhaps best exemplified by the euphoric Veiled In Grey (which The Killers would be proud to call their own), and Two Doors Down, where the chorus synths sound like ABC or Human League, while the strangled sax solo that concludes the song sounds like INXS. It harks back to the cheesiest ’80s moments, and is almost a bit of a guilty pleasure, but this is perfect pop music which works incredibly well, not least once the multi-textured vocal hooks of the chorus bury themselves in your head.
Harrison, apart from being vocally superb throughout, is an engaging poet, who paints vivid, pretty pictures with his lyricism and is capable of narrating captivating stories with musings on modern day life and love devoid of pretence and cliché, but embued with truth and astute observations. A truly understated talent.
The attention to detail on this record is staggering, which is testament to both Mystery Jets’ and Alkan’s abilities. To single out moments is difficult – Twenty One is teeming with addictive hooks, and little pangs of freshly squeezed goodness that render the album a record that you need to keep returning to, juxtaposing camp ’80s indie pop (Young Love, Two Doors Down) with heart wrenching melodies (Half In Love With Elizabeth, Flakes, Veiled In Grey) and stripped down, tender bits of magic (Umbrellahead).
Twenty One is an excellent album replete with brilliant, clean, original production and instantly memorable songs. With it, Mystery Jets have made the difficult transition from a good band with potential, to major players on the indie music scene. They stand head and shoulders above their contemporaries.