If you’re a British band with a reputation for crafting hazy sonic landscapes that move only slightly faster than a Xanax addict, there are two ways to test the limits of your fan base. First, craft an album composed primarily of upbeat pop songs. Second, release the album during the World Cup. Mojave 3 is doing both. The group’s fifth album, Puzzles Like You (4AD), offers a radical departure from its established sound, and it’s released here just three days before the first match kicks off. Songwriter Neil Halstead isn’t particularly nervous, however.
“We’ve been told it’s the worst time to release an album in the U.K.,” he says. “We just have to work around football.”
For Halstead and his Mojave 3 bandmates—bassist Rachel Goswell, keyboardist Alan Forrester and drummer Ian McCutcheon (guitarist Simon Rowe left amicably in 2004)—Puzzles represents facing the unknown. The group entered Halstead’s studio in Cornwall with little more than song sketches and the idea that it wanted to speed up the tempo.
“The record was born from wanting to try something new,” says Halstead. “We were very comfortable doing a certain thing, and it was good to feel like we were out of our comfort zone.”
Puzzles may initially shock—and perhaps appall—fans who relish the languid pace of Mojave 3’s back catalog, particularly 1995’s Ask Me Tomorrow and 1998’s Out Of Tune. Halstead’s usual musical influences (Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan) are present, but much of Puzzles feels as if it’s been baked in the dazzling sun and musky weed of California circa 1965. Halstead laughs at the adjective “groovy,” but it’s an apt descriptor for jaunty, keyboard-driven opener “Truck Driving Man” and the Mamas & The Papas vocal harmonies between Halstead and Goswell on “Running With Your Eyes Closed.” Puzzles Like You’s first single, “Breaking The Ice,” emulates the cheerful Britpop that surrounded Mojave 3 when it rose from the ashes of shoegaze outfit Slowdive a decade ago.
“Actually, a lot of it reminds me of the C86 stuff: Felt, early Creation (Records bands),” says Halstead. “I loved that era.”
According to Halstead, Mojave 3 struggled with the new pop-song structures in the studio. An extended period of recording was followed by an even more painful mixing session. After laboring for six months, the band handed it over to producer Victor Van Vugt, who’s worked with the likes of PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and Beth Orton.
Van Vugt dissected Mojave 3’s inscrutable haze and highlighted individual instruments. About halfway through the insanely catchy title track, a whirling keyboard flits out of the mix, builds to a whizzing climax, then floats away. Guitar strings pop like dripping tap water on “The Mutineer.” On “You’ve Said It Before,” Halstead’s drowsy voice hangs above the music-box tinkle and clicking percussion. Wistful moments like this will help endear Puzzles to longtime fans, but it’s the album’s pop side that stands out.
“We do wonder about whether people will like it, but at some point, I can’t worry,” says Halstead. “I just hope we don’t lose any good men along the way.”