It is always a fascinating moment when an artist steps out from behind a career-long shroud. For Leeds band Hookworms, you can understand why this was the moment. It has been over three years since their last record, a time that has been filled with frustration and tragedy. A North American tour hit the rocks when bureaucratic visa goblins struck and months later the home studio of keyboardist and vocalist Matthew ‘MJ’ Johnson was flooded, leaving the band out of pocket and inspiration. MJ is one of the country’s most sought-after indie producers, so the setback was all the greater.
The time out has seen the band transform. Where previous records were doused in feedback and thick layers of noise, Microshift is full of space and sharpness. The comeback single ‘Negative Space’ is a masterpiece of production: a maximal, DFA-flavoured playland, driven by drums that make it sound like a hand from above is physically pounding the reverb-laden fog of the first two albums out of the system. The air is clear and the sound handcrafted, with MJ’s vocals soaring high and true. It is pulsing, kinetic and emotionally expressive, with lyrics that appear to tackle mental health, a subject about which MJ has rarely been so candid in his music. It’s far more than a microshift, that’s for sure. The recurring line, “I still hear you every time I’m down” is bittersweet as he sings of being forced to live in the negative space, culminating in a howl of “how long’s forever?”
In some ways, ‘Negative Space’ isn't too representative, but the signals were there, in particular the bloopy, modular synth intro and the sparkling vocal clarity. The seven-minute ‘Ullswater’ is the second of three monster tracks that act as the pillars holding ‘Microshift’ aloft, well clear of most other records that 2018 will produce. Its studio-created sonic palette of electronic sounds is the new default for Hookworms, but it’s a discipline that comes apart at the edges near the track’s climax, with MJ’s screaming, primal crescendo of “I’ll always love you/It’s the last thing I’ll say/I know it’s the last thing I’ll do/Stay strong”. Even longer is the galloping, head-spinning ‘Opener’, the third centrepiece. “It’s hard to find a better world/Where we can count up all the shortcomings/Oppress them until they’re hidden/Or just let it all out,” is MJ’s existential cry this time. For an album burdened with such heavy subject matter, it’s remarkable how uplifting a listening experience it is.
The latter two tracks are separated by the gorgeous and heartbroken ‘The Soft Season’, reminiscent of no less a band than Spiritualized, a song whose subject is hiding their desire, only to be betrayed by the expression on their face. It is in every way a million miles from ‘Pearl Mystic’ or ‘The Hum’, as is ‘Each Time We Pass’, which is what an A-Ha song might sound like if it had been left alone in a damp cave to fight for its survival thirty years ago and is just now braving the outside again, blinking in the light, mutated and mangled but still with the same sweetness in its heart.
Only once does the painful experience of the studio flood bleed into the record, on ‘Boxing Day’, named for the day in 2015 when the River Aire’s banks broke. Screeching brass and furious guitar stabs litter the track, a self-contained two minute purge of anger. It is twinned with the following track ‘Reunion’, the calm that followed the storm. One imagines the reunion in question is between band and studio, and accordingly the track is beaming with love.
You would have to search far and wide to find a transformation in an already great band that works as well as this. The key to it all is the vulnerability that MJ is now willing to put on display, giving the newfound musical incisiveness the emotional fuel it needs to really fly. If this isn’t one of the albums of the year then we must be in for something special.
9Max Pilley's Score