While doing some research (oh fine, looking at Wikipedia) for this review, something struck me concerning the chart performance of Mystery Jets - despite adopting an '80s pop slant with second and third albums Twenty One and Serotonin, their loveably oddball prog-influenced debut Making Dens remains their highest-charting record. Still, this should be taken as a by-product of the ever-shifting nature of record-buying (or lack thereof) and music consumption - Mystery Jets have yet to produce a bad album, and Radlands looks to continue that good form.
Of course, if you did all your research on Wikipedia, you might erroneously believe that Radlands is named after a defunct Northampton skate part, which couldn't be further from the truth. The name comes from a combination of 'Badlands' and 'Redlands' (the 1970s Terrence Malick film and Keith Richard’s Sussex estate, respectively), and is the name they gave to their studio - an old riverbank house in Austin, Texas. The American influence is almost immediately apparent in both the sound and language of the record's opening song, 'Radlands' - guitars twang and slide in a distinctly country manner, and lyrics such as "load up old Bill's 12-gauge and meet me by the lake," couldn't really be evocative of anywhere but America. 'Lost In Austin', on the other hand, has more than a touch of desert rock about it and features the album's heaviest chorus thanks to its fuzzy, punchy guitars.
While it wasn't readily apparent to me on my first listen to the record, there is a loose narrative thread running through Radlands - indeed, the band have described it as their first concept album. The concept in question is the tale of a fictional character called Emmerson Lonestar, a wandering troubadour who leaves a trail of disastrous relationships in his wake - as his 'theme song' spells out pretty clearly ("Just a lone star in the sky, treading the night/cutting loose the mess you left, taking flight.") 'The Ballad Of Emmerson Lonestar' is, of course, a typically country-influenced track, with finger-picked guitar and mournful pedal steel bringing to mind moon-lit, dusty deserts.
The twist, however, is that while Lonestar may be a fictional character, the tales he's involved in are all true. The titular character in 'Sister Everett' is in fact a real person, a missionary who the band met on their travels and who apparently attempted to convert guitarist William Rees. 'You Had Me At Hello' turns out to be the most savvy use of Lonestar as a narrative device, telling a story of illicit love without having to reveal who was involved. Smoothly done, guys.
Fans of the band's '80s pop sound will be releved to hear that it's not entirely absent .The jaunty 'Greatest Hits' describes a relationship defined by a shared record collection, and the inevitable bickering over who gets to keep what after the relationship falls through ("You can take away It's A Shame About Ray/but I'm holding on to Country Life,") with plenty of 'sha la la's thrown into the chorus for good measure. They even hark back earlier than the '80s on occasion - 'The Hale Bop's falsetto chorus channels The Bee Gees of all things.
If there's one track that seamlessly marries the old and the new Mystery Jets together to create one of the record's best songs, it's lead single 'Someone Purer'. Beginning with an urgent, ominous feel before bursting into a glorious pop-rock chorus. It then does the tension and release trick again, but this time with an even greater payoff - a heady rush of guitars and the simple but effective sentiment ("Give me rock and roll/and a pure and innocent soul.")
Elsewhere, it's some of the quieter tracks that also prove to be major highlights. 'Take Me Where The Roses Grow' is a wonderful duet between Rees and guest vocalist Sophie-Rose Harper, and ties itself into the grander narrative by showing what it's like to be on the receiving end of Lonestar's fly-by-night nature ("you slip through my hands/like the desert's shifting sand.") Even the hardiest soul begins to feel the effects of such a lifestyle though, as stripped back album-closer 'Luminescence' leaves the record's protagonist tinged with regret ("You still swim around the canals of my head like cocaine/and yes, it feels good, but not half as it would if you'd stayed.")
It's fair to say that Mystery Jets have absorbed American influences into their sound on Radlands, but thankfully not so much that they lose their own identity. Their knack for a hook and a simple but affecting story remain, but now they're woven into the sounds of the American south and arranged as part of a greater narrative. After spending some time with this record, I think it's safe to say that my earlier statement still holds true - Mystery Jets have yet to produce a bad album.