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Mojave 3

4AD

Iraq. Global warming. Tom Cruise reproducing. Signs that the world is going to hell are everywhere. So why do hipsters sound more at ease than ever? In the past year, we’ve seen blissed-out psych-folkies spring up like magic mushrooms, Belle and Sebastian make a pseudo-dance album, and Sonic Youth embrace four-minute pop songs. And now, on the new Puzzles Like You, even misty-eyed country-rock ensemble Mojave 3 is whistling an upbeat tune. When melancholic Englishman Neil Halstead disbanded his early-’90s shoegaze outfit, Slowdive, and began Mojave 3, he traded swirling electric guitars and snowed-under vocals for a more delicate style: slow acoustic strumming, wistful pedal steel, and bummer lyrics you could actually hear. The formula challenges the impatient, with Halstead’s songs unfurling without a clear sense of purpose other than making a decent soundtrack for a ride down some lonely highway. But it’s obvious from opener “Truck Driving Man” that Puzzles Like You busts the old Mojave format: It begins as a jaunty boogie and evolves into bright jangle pop. Except for three slow acoustic jobs, the record maintains this sunny energy throughout. Listen closely, though, and you’ll hear Halstead’s downbeat past infiltrating his exuberant present. “Spring is gone, the summer’s fleeting/I felt the whispers of your leaving/Judy, where’s your smile today?” he sings sweetly on “Running With Your Eyes Closed.” The combination of melodic sparkle and lyrical darkness makes for a fairly compelling—if not exactly original—tension, and Halstead executes it to near perfection on the Teenage Fanclub–ish “Big Star Baby,” whose chiming guitars are punctuated by a mournful pedal steel. “I don’t wanna be the big star, baby/Is that OK?” he asks. “I don’t wanna be the big star baby, anyway.” It might be a cute Alex Chilton reference, but it reads better as a self-deprecating acknowledgment of Halstead’s modest place in the rock-music pantheon. Indeed, Puzzles is throughout a reminder that the singer probably won’t achieve anything close to a Chiltonian level of fame. Taken as a piece, the album slides by enjoyably enough. But on their own, Halstead’s new songs don’t do much to distinguish themselves from those of every other artist who does happy music with sad lyrics. Still, the apocalypse is no time to quibble about originality. Give Halstead credit for putting on a cheery face—even if, 20 or 30 years from now, hardly anyone will remember what it looks like. —Michael Crowley