Mew frontman Jonas Bjerre has worked on the projections for the band’s live shows since their early days. Usually, the Danish trio finish an album and Bjerre gets to work on the visuals. For their seventh record, though, the singer decided to turn things upside down, working on the visuals first and seeing if they informed the music. The resultant record feels like a culmination for one of rock’s most ambitious and inventive groups: Visuals is where Bjerre and his bandmates, bassist Johan Wohlert and drummer Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen, join the dots of a career that has spanned over two decades. “We do everything on this album ourselves,” says Bjerre. “We produced it ourselves, I did the artwork, I’m doing the visuals. Visuals felt like a fitting title. I like the idea that each song has a visual aspect to it somehow.”
Mew have a tradition of, as Bjerre puts it, hiding away in a cave for three or four years between albums. The tour that accompanied 2015’s +- album found the band reaching a creative peak that they felt was too exhilarating to be dampened by a period of extended cave-dwelling. They arrived home with demos that had been written on the road and the spark was lit. They wanted to break the cycle and make an album quickly. “We just felt like, “if we do it the normal way, it’s gonna be another three or four years before we get to do it again’,” says Bjerre. “If you keep doing it like that, ultimately you make a handful of albums and then you’re ready for retirement.” The trio wanted to make an album spontaneously, keeping the energy they’d generated on the road going.
They set to work in Copenhagen and started knocking the demos they’d written on tourbuses and in hotel rooms into shape. At the same time, new songs were emerging in reaction to what was going on around them. Mew aren’t a political band but couldn’t help but be affected by rolling news and the death of an icon. “It was pretty dark last year, so some of the darkness in the lyrics comes from that. You definitely get the feeling that things don’t last forever when someone like David Bowie dies.” Visuals was completed in just under a year – what Bjerre describes as an “incredible” feat for a band used to periods of prolonged tinkering. “Spending less time on it, you can still maintain the feeling you had when you first wrote it,” says Bjerre.
Bjerre doesn’t know where Mew songs come from. He finds it hard to pin down his lyrics, his melodies, himself. It’s what makes his band so special, that thrill that songs could go anywhere, that understated verses could suddenly rocket skyward, anthemic choruses could implode into beautiful soundscapes or sophisticated grooves could be crushed like a tincan. “I don’t consciously know why the songs come out the way they do,” says Bjerre. “It’s a lot of trial and error for us. Even though a song is on an album, it keeps growing because we get to go out and perform it for an audience. I like the thought it can keep growing. It’s never really finished.”
Visuals is Mew at their most compact, their chemistry at its most potent. With only one song over five minutes, it’s their most concise album. Bjerre says there was no need for a grand, overarching concept. Each song on Visuals represents its own little chapter and story: nothing needed to be overly long. “Each album is like a collection of thoughts and ideas that fit the time we’re in,” he says. “They’re like little diary entries, except they’re a little bit more veiled perhaps. To me, albums are memories of times in my life.”
The song that led the way was the slow-building euphoria of Nothingness And No Regrets. Bjerre says that Mew lyrics often have two or three different meanings, and the opener is a reflection on life and death at the same time as “imagining this team of people trying to accomplish something and ultimately failing.” The expansive 80s-style pop of The Wake Of Your Life is about legacy and what’s left after you’ve gone. “These are things you think about more and more the older you get.” It started out as a synth-pop track with lots of programming before taking on a different shape when the band added guitars over the top. “We try to change the method of how we reach the destination all the time cos if you do things the same way all the time, the results will often be very similar,” says Bjerre.
The discordant stomp of Candy Pieces All Smeared Out came about after Bjerre went back over some demos he’d made as a youngster on an Omega 500. “Some of them were interesting sonically so I kept some of the programming. We built the song on top of this really weird 8-bit computer track.” The song sums up the emotional to and fro and captivating contrariness at the heart of Visuals: it’s an album that’s both nostalgic and contemporary, that looks back whilst marching forward.
The blissful glide of In A Better Place is a prime example of the impulsive environment that the songs were written in, a drumbeat by Jorgensen inspiring Bjerre to write a song immediately, whilst the atmospheric rock of Ay Ay Ay was based around a choir part that Bjerre had come up with a few years ago. All of the vocal parts were recorded in the booth that Bjerre had constructed in his apartment in Copenhagen. “I like waking up in the middle of the night and feeling inspired by something and being able to go in my booth and just sing it,” he says.
Bjerre says that the celebratory groove of Learn Our Crystals “is one of our weirdest songs.” Poppy and fantastical, it had a familiar feeling to the singer as soon as he wrote it. The soulful sway of Shoulders has an R’n’B feel to it, whilst Bjerre had earmarked the mesmerising intricacy Carry Me To Safety as the album’s closer as soon as it’d been written. “I just like how it twists and turns,” he says. “It’s a reflection on life and being in a band, what it means to be in a band, dedicating so many years of your life to this thing.”
Twenty years into their career, Mew have the irrepressible ebullience of a band on their debut album. Visuals feels like the beginning of a new chapter. “Mew is what I always come back to, it’s a companion to my life. It’s always been there, as long as I can remember. It’s a big part of the footprint that we’ll leave behind,” says Bjerre. Mew march on: this is the sound of a band seizing the moment.