English 4-piece Mystery Jets have been a bit of an oddity since they were first formed. Lead singer Blaine Harrison cannot walk without crutches, having been born with spinal defect spina bifida, and his father Henry not only encouraged Blaine to pursue a musical career, he was also in the band when they started. He only joins the band in-studio now, but what he began as essentially a family band has now become something much larger. Serotonin is Mystery Jets’ third studio album; the band has attracted a strong fanbase and enjoyed critical acclaim for each of their records (Making Dens in 2006, Twenty One in 2008 and Serotonin). So are they slowing down or just getting started? It seems more like they’re happily moving along.
If you take a look at any press photos of Mystery Jets, you’d think they create alternative pop so morose it’d make Rolf Harris put down his wobble-board. Yet this talented group of twenty-somethings are far more likely to lift your spirits than to crush them.
For Serotonin is, without a shadow of a doubt, an 80s revival record. The band know it, anyone who’s listened to it knows it, even I know it. And it’s bloody good fun to listen to as a result. Far more similar to the jaunty charm of Twenty One than the slightly heavier Making Dens, it’s an album which sets out to achieve one thing – to get feet tapping –and does it very effectively.
Although the term ’80s revival’ can be an exceptionally difficult one to wrangle, the band have managed to ignore (most) of the dreadful tropes of mid-80s electro: rather than layer on the synth backing and fake drums, they lightly sprinkle the record with 80s style.
Serotonin is more like a pair of Reebok hi-tops than a fluorescent tracksuit, if you like: it adds touches of retro chic without completely smothering you in 80s nostalgia. The echoey vocals on ‘The Girl is Gone’ or the treble synth effects on ‘Dreaming of Another World’ are examples of these throwback details, but others are not difficult to find.
Blaine Harrison’s lyrics, in general, are not the most original you’ll ever hear, but gel nicely with the band’s sound – Mystery Jets are more a band of melody than one of poetry on this evidence. The hooks are unflashy (“I flash a hungry smile/It makes you run a mile”), but are made catchy through clever instrument arrangements and Harrison’s excellent voice. Occasionally, you’ll detect a drop of pretension – “freedom is an illusion generated by our brains” (‘Alice Springs’), no thank you – but in the main the vocals are effective. Harrison and guitarist William Rees’ harmonies are lovingly rendered, and in vocal breaks like the one on title track ‘Serotonin’, they deliver on both accuracy and quality.
However, it’s when Mystery Jets are in full flow that they are at their best. Many of the songs start quite slowly, and don’t seem very engaging at first, but the longer each goes on, the better it gets. The choruses are really the strength of Serotonin, each able to incorporate the talents of Harrison, Rees, drummer Kapil Trivedi and bassist Kai Fish effortlessly. This ability to produce top-drawer choruses is obviously an incredibly useful skill, but it’s also something of a two-sided coin: whilst some of the album’s best tracks (‘Show Me the Light’) drive along superbly, others (‘Alice Springs’) are lifted out of the mediocre by superb sections. Tracks like ‘Melt’ offer a useful barometer – it’s a very decent song in the main, but the chorus makes it re-listenable, the dreadful middle-8 does not.
It seems incredibly unfair to criticise bands for making their choruses ‘too good’ – after all, almost all classic songs are mainly remembered for a superb hook – but in some cases on Serotonin they inadvertently highlight weaker verse sections or intros.
However, it’s undeniable that when tracks like ‘Flash a Hungry Smile’ or ‘Show Me the Light’ come on the stereo, your foot is certain to tap. Offering just the right combination of retro touches and delicately textured instrumentation, Mystery Jets can deliver a cracking indie-pop tune when they’re so inclined. The latter of these tracks is a perfectly balanced 80s revival track that could one day develop into an indie club standard, such is its thumping beat and dangerously catchy central riff.
Serotonin is not going to define an era or start a new one, but it’s a very enjoyable listen, largely due to the superb choruses throughout. This is by no means fluff, but it’s not going to change your life. One thing it’s very likely to do, however, is improve your mood time and again, and it’s well worth a listen for all fans of the band, and the 1980s. Just as with the decade itself, we’re able to overlook certain shortcomings and embrace Serotonin. And so we should.
Best tracks: ‘Show Me the Light’, ‘Flash A Hungry Smile’, ‘The Girl is Gone’.
If you like this, you’ll also like: I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Loose – Bombay Bicycle Club, Total Life Forever – Foals, The Freedom Spark – Larrikin Love.