Lush: Sweetness, Light, and Longevity
Lush released their first full-length album “Spooky” (above) in 1992.
Shoegaze music was born into a confused mixture of superficiality. In the late 80s/early 90s, a sudden wave of newly introduced subgenres forsook national spotlights just as quickly as they were gained, some, like the familiar case of grunge, doomed by deaths of leading figures, and others simply outgrown by society. It was almost as if the previous decade served to lay a blueprint for what contemporary music sounded like, yet the 90s, ever the younger sibling, wound up further confusing it all in an inevitable experimentation with the limits. No decade was more exploratory, infatuated with the ever-evolving nuance of melodic art.
The longevity of shoegaze was marked by a life away from fame. Before it touched American record stores, the genre germinated as a slow-churning movement in underground European club scenes. Bands like Ride and My Bloody Valentine led local surges defined by pedal-based sound layering (the term ‘shoegaze’ refers to how guitarists looked down at their pedalboards), taking a process once exclusive to the studio into their own hands. Upon hitting the U.S market, the movement grew exponentially, but remained below the surface.
British band Lush sought to contribute when they released Gala – a compilation album – in 1990, the mission of which was essentially to break into the growing subsphere. It was a bizarre display, packed from sleeve to sleeve with tension that threatened to explode into a million jagged shards, blatant disrespect for the boundaries of music theory taking shape in an album-long abrasion between euphoria and anxiety.
The majority of the record’s music is characterized by unorthodox juxtapositions. On De-Luxe, it’s fairly difficult to distinguish between extreme opposites of the emotional spectrum; percussion radiates energy of gross exuberance throughout, but moods conjured by string fusions are constantly subject to change, often soaring to the highest of heavens only to plunge to the depths of Hades seconds afterward. The duality is encompassed by woozy lyricism: “Some say I’m vague and I easily fade/ Foolish parade of fantasy/ Drink in your eyes, drink in your sighs/ crossing my thighs, my aching legs.” Though the entire song is branded by this melodic wall of sound consistent with shoegaze, what makes it all the more interesting is that the bass audibly deviates from the agendas of its six-stringed counterparts from start to finish. The tension is just as much musical as it is emotional.
Lead single Sweetness and Light offers a similar dynamic. Over a constantly shifting foundation of arpeggiated chords and swooping bottom, Miki Berenyi sings of her existence’s ugliest crevices: “See my life, see myself, see my sight (I’ve been so tired; I’ve been uptight; I could disappear)”. There is little to no agreement with conventional structure over musical breaks, yet somehow, magically, all returns to standard in time for the school bell that is the re-emergence of Berenyi’s falsetto.
Lush made music that danced between heaven and hell. Sometimes the heavens lay within angelic vocals, the hell in instrumentation, and vice versa – but there was no escaping some form of eternity. Both surfaced at once, and there was no taking one without the other.
Like Lush, every shoegaze group had a sort of “signature” formula that grew synonymous with its essence. For My Bloody Valentine, that took shape in the blending of sound – best heard in songs like I Only Said – to the extreme extent of no instrument being differentiated from the next. English rock act The Verve took a more psychedelic approach; for their 1992 self-titled debut EP, stadium rock was rephrased in a more spacey, ambience-centered, light carried on over decades of production.
Both, though, were short lived – and it’s a quality that represents shoegaze perhaps more than the sound itself.
London-based music publication The Quietus spoke on the genre’s brevity in a 2016 article. “Shoegazing, frankly, got boring, its success in inspiring bands to turn up the effects pedals laying the seed of its own destruction,” Ben Cardew wrote. “The genuine sonic innovation of the early shoegaze acts was subsumed in an easy-to-apply formula of guitar drone and mumbled vocals.”
It’s an equation we’ve seen apply to the recessions of various genres: nothing changes – the consumer simply grows bored of it. Consequently, the complete umbrella of artists associated with the category is put at odds. Changing a musical approach may keep the majority entertained; but, included in the package is disinterest from loyal listeners having fallen in love with the original sound (Just ask Chance the Rapper).
Sometimes, a rebranding initiative is successful. In the case of Snoop Dogg, the West-Coast gangsta rap scene in which he thrived had passed its prime by the mid-2000s; yet, after a barrage of brand new identities – Snoop Lion, Snoopzilla, and Nemo Hoes, to name a few – Snoop is slated to enter his third decade on the consumer end of hip-hop’s food chain.
But longevity is unfortunately not easily attained in the music business. It is considered science that all living things adapt to their respective environments; for music, the same: Culture is the ‘environment,’ and when it progresses past the organism that is an artist or genre, the latter is obsolete. Obsoletion is the equivalent to death.
The last trace of original shoegaze is, arguably, Lush, and in their 2016 EP Blind Spot, they seek to remind the world that they are neither obsolete or deceased.
Lush differed in that they found a ‘middle-ground’ between the extremes. Somehow, they adhered to a formula founded decades ago, all the while altering it for modern ears. Blind Spot sees the group’s signature tension remain omnipresent, glaring at the consumer throughout. Rather than the forefront, however, it studies you from the shadow of the doorway.
In Burnham Beeches, Berenyi opens with playful scatting, a lightheartedness emulated by the band.
But then she starts singing.
“Sun light in the midst of street that blows, I want to wash away forever.”
Though no instrument offers any suggestion of despair – there’s even a brief horn solo – the signature contradiction Lush fans have grown used to is adequately encapsulated by words alone.
The means are weightless. Like every other Lush album, by the end of it, you are sitting between your happiness and your sadness, both whispering in your ear.