On the surface, dream-pop can equate to very similar ambient tunes, however, Stephen McLaren’s debut album We Used To Go Raving is a collection of experimental, electronic pieces where all corners of the genre are explored – and all the while on piano. The Scottish teacher-come-musician touches upon a range of topics, from culture to love and politics, but with a very clear “no bullshit” approach. His lyrics are brutally honest as they aren’t dressed up in cliché metaphors or obscure references, leaving him vulnerable and relatable to fans of all genres – when you can understand him, that is.
Most tracks feature distorted vocals to enhance the ambient effect, although it becomes a common issue as deciphering the lyrics tends to take away from the passion you know is intended. Title track and album opener ‘We Used To Go Raving’ covers the nostalgia McLaren feels for his 20s, yet the potential connection is masked by the focus on the overlaying backing vocals. This track stands out as the long ethereal notes, both vocal and synth, contrast against the fast piano loop that drives the melody. The pace of the underlying piano that flows throughout adds dimension to the song’s topic, reflecting on his hedonistic youth.
Aged 34, McLaren continues with the nostalgic theme as he discusses post-millennium culture in minor ballad ‘Chest Pains Lullaby’. Conveying a pessimistic view on the development of his generation with lyrics such as “I stare at the screen and wonder about what position to take on the issue of the day” show the album to overall be a tribute to the past and his lack of identity in the new age.
The use of clear, undistorted vocals accompanied by a stripped-back piano melody and minimal strings leaves this track very bare and almost vulnerable, perfectly representing the intended mood.Tracks such as this showcase his vocal abilities, conveying that without distortion his smooth voice is well controlled and doesn’t falter. His voice is very similar to Morrissey’s when not overdressed in sound effects as he mimics The Smiths’ frontman’s accent, although this is not a negative. The neutral, distinctive tones compliment his ambient and often chilling instrumentation of an entirely different genre.
Scottish listeners may be torn when it comes to ‘No More (Say Yes)’ and ‘Immigrants’ as McLaren airs his political dirty laundry as a pro-Scottish independence and anti-Brexit voter. Both tracks include dominating, high-pitched, clanging keys which overlap all other elements featured. ‘No More (Say Yes)’ falls very neatly into the new wave genre as an up-beat, piano-driven pop song (albeit with a slightly more serious undertone), whereas ‘Immigrants’ stands out against anything else on the record. Sounding vaguely like a minor, sinister parody of Doris Days’ 1950s classic ‘Que Sera, Sera’, this satirical track is more like creepy, jingly circus music where the darker connotations are made apparent. No matter your political stance, ‘Immigrants’ will perplex even the strongest of mindsets as it encapsulates McLaren’s experimental tendencies.
Overall, McLaren’s debut could leave listeners quite on the fence. Individually, the dark lyrics and euphoric pop instrumentation are both masterpieces, however the thought-provoking contrast doesn’t always work, leaving some tracks with little cohesion between the two elements. The overuse of vocal effects on particularly meaningful songs causes an undesirable stretch in focus, which is unfortunate due to each having such potential. It’s definitely more than you bargain for on the surface; keeping some listeners hooked throughout, whereas others may get lost in the distorted translation.