It’s just as well that the halcyon days of shoegaze didn’t yield much in the way of arena-filling acts or blockbuster albums. Thus was the fanbase spared the indignity of having to see ageing favourites playing outdoor festivals with names like Monsters Of Reverb or signing sleeves at Dream Pop Fan Expo 2023. It’s nevertheless been oddly heartwarming to see so many signs of vitality among the era’s flagship acts, what with Ride and Slowdive in excellent health and scene elders Elizabeth Fraser and Kevin Shields resurfacing with strong new music, albeit in the form of a fuzz-pedal demo in the latter’s case.
Now another of shoegaze’s original progenitors has returned with an album that boasts a comparable degree of verve amid the requisite supply of shimmer and swirl. A very belated solo debut, Pearlies comprises the first songs to be released under Emma Anderson’s own name since she began her musical career alongside her school pal and future Lush partner Miki Berenyi in mid-’80s London. It’s also her first album since the premature end of Lush’s reunion in 2016, their detente lasting long enough for the band to perform shows in the UK and North America, and to record and release the four-song EP “Blind Spot”.
Like the songs on “Blind Spot”, Pearlies standouts such as the stately single “Bend The Round” and the softer “Willow And Mallow” see Anderson revisit the gauzy sound of Lush’s early years as opposed to their brasher Britpop-era hits like “Single Girl”. But whereas the earlier EP could seem both tantalising and tentative, Pearlies feels more confident, the music here serving as fully realised reminders of the gifts that Anderson displayed not just in Lush but Sing-Sing, her underrated duo with Lisa O’Neill which split in 2007.
Indeed, for all the shoegaze and dream-pop trademarks that can be found inside, Pearlies is quite different than it might’ve been had Anderson developed the ideas and demos she was working on in 2016 into full-fledged Lush songs as she originally intended. In the wake of the split, her next plan was to mould them into pieces for film and TV soundtracks with help from cellist and arranger Audrey Riley and Robin Guthrie, an approach that explains the cinematic quality of the music here. Anderson had planned to foreground a singer other than herself, much as she had with Berenyi in Lush and O’Neill in Sing-Sing. It was only upon Guthrie’s urging that Anderson sing them herself, and he was right to insist.
After the usual pandemic delays, she convened in a Northamptonshire studio with producer James Chapman aka Maps as her principal musical partner. Suede guitarist Richard Oakes also contributes to four songs, including opener “I Was Miles Away”. It’s one of several songs that share the airy melodicism of Anderson’s first great piece for Lush, 1990’s “Sweetness And Light”. Yet Pearlies also sees her push deeper into modes that lie beyond dream-pop’s usual mist-laden realm, beginning with the eerie synthesis of pastoral folk, woozy psychedelia and hauntological pop in “Inter Light”. In a manner reminiscent of Portishead’s “Mysterons” and Broadcast’s “Before We Begin”, it combines the sickly-sweet quality of a love theme in some forgotten ’60s TV drama with intimations of the uncanny. Anderson’s softly sung warnings (“Don’t be afraid/Tread carefully/Springtime is fading away”) highlight the album’s sinister undercurrents, as does “Xanthe”, a beautifully chilling interlude that Anderson augments with the same kind of “la-la-la” lullaby that Mia Farrow performed for Krzystof Komeda’s theme for Rosemary’s Baby.
The bucolic “Willow And Mallow” hints at another iconic horror score, with Anderson citing the music of The Wicker Man as an inspiration along with Goldfrapp’s Seventh Tree. Here again Anderson exposes roots that have long part of her singing and songwriting – namely Vashti Bunyan and Shirley Collins at their most spectral – but were perhaps obscured by shoegaze’s clouds of reverb. There’s a sense throughout that she’s reaching back towards an older music, which befits the album’s many lyrical references to the passing of time and midlife realisations. “And now the summer’s over, the nights are drawing in”, she sings on the closer “Clusters”, another song here whose crystalline prettiness and poppy immediacy exist alongside a deeper unease.
While Pearlies often invites comparisons with music by Lush’s many dream-pop descendants – “The Presence” and “Tonight Is Mine” being just two songs here that Beach House will wish they’d crafted – Anderson continually finds intriguing ways of deviating from those templates. In so doing, she’s able to nudge the guitar pedals aside and demonstrate that her music still has other places to go.