The reason that Primal Scream have been one of the most compelling bands of the last 25 years is entirely down to their being one of the least reliable. Listening to any new Primal Scream album seems rooted more in trepidation than excitement. As a true student of rock and roll – and someone who seems to love every revolutionary piece of music he hears – Bobby Gillespie simply can’t seem to tell what he is and isn’t good at.
Hence, his band have never had anything longer than a run of two great albums at a time and, when you think about it, there isn’t really a Primal Scream Sound. After pretty much predicting the last decade with the unimpeachable XTRMNTR, the slide into mediocrity has been slow and painful, either through increasingly bland rehashes of former glories, or Riot City Blues, a blooze-rock record that makes everything the Stones put out in the eighties sound like Exile on Main Street.
So, on paper, More Light seems poised to change that – albeit in a relatively regressive way. Their most interesting collaborators all stop by – Andy Wetherall, Kevin Shields and David Holmes – and the ever-touted “return to form” seems predicated on it being a XTRMNTR for the 2010s. Politico-cultural commentary? Check, including two references to Thatcher and Guy Debord in the first three songs. Dense, bleak soundscapes? You got it. Bobby G trying his hand at rapping again? Shudder. Yup. That’s here too. In fact, at 13 tracks in 68 minutes (and with a member of the band on the cover of the album for the first time since the eighties - Bobby G, obviously), Primal Scream sound genuinely determined to prove themselves for the first time in ages.
And guess what? Some of that effort pays off, just not always in the ways you’d expect. Sure, there’s the relentless gonzo rock and roll euphoria of ‘Hit Void’ – More Light‘s worthiest successor to anything on XTRMNTR - but it’s the more spacious moments of the album that really pay off. Most promising of the bunch is ‘Walking With the Beast’, the best ballad the Primals have conjured since ‘Keep Your Dreams’. A loving tribute to (read: straight-up rip-off of) the third Velvets album, it’s all muted twang and hushed strums, while the lyrics are unashamedly pulled straight out of the class of ’69.
Similarly, the intricate acoustic psychedelics of ‘River of Pain’ and ‘Goodbye Johnny’ – on which Gillespie actually croons – sounds like Lee Hazelwood by way of a David Lynch soundtrack, suggests that there’s the kernel of a sound that the band are hitting upon waiting to be properly explored.
Unfortunately, it’s simply not to be, at least not here, and these more reflective moments are caught up in an all-too-similar tidal wave of the kind of self-important bluster you’d hope Bobby and co would have outgrown by now. While there’s nothing quite at the ‘Suicide Sally and Johnny Guitar’ level of awful, the ungodly trip-hop-hip-hop-post-punk-gospel nonsense of ‘Culturecide’ and ’2013”s opening saxophonic Krautrush (which, lyrically, is part curious time-capsule, part embarrassing politics lesson) veer dangerously close. Meanwhile, the just-plain-boring stretch of tracks from ‘Sideman’ to ‘Relativity’ sounds a hell of a lot less subversive than it obviously thinks it does.
At its best, More Light shows that even this far into the game, Primal Scream still have some aces up their sleeve. Unfortunately, the rest of the time, it’s the sonic equivalent of the moment in Almost Famous when its fictional band’s lead singer petulantly insists “I’m incendiary too!” There’s too much telling and not enough showing across More Light‘s 70 minutes, and while its most impressive moments clearly see the band give out, another flickeringly interesting record dominated by pseudo-revolutionary scattershot sloganeering and half-baked riffery suggests they may well do better to just give up.