It’s clear to me that Slowly Slowly keep on winning hearts through their music. Their newest album Race Car Blues is continuing to expand the Slowly Slowly intrigue, adding to the affection and familiarity inspired by St. Leonards and Chamomile before it. For the uninitiated, Slowly Slowly are Ben Stewart (vocals), Albert Doan (guitar), Alex Quayle (bass), and Patrick Murphy (drums).
Their growing fanbase is no surprise to me at all. Considering that each album has been a collection of heartfelt music while staying very real, and as vulnerable as possible, it’s easy to carve out a special place in one’s heart for bands like Slowly Slowly. I’ve spoken with frontman and lyricist Ben Stewart, and he’s shared that openness is a challenge for him. It has been through music (of Slowly Slowly as well as his Congrats project) that he reveals himself to not just the world but to people in his life. It’s nothing to sneeze at that we’re given front row seats to his internal processing of life with creations like Race Car Blues.
A lot of this processing comes via a stream of consciousness style of lyricism, like album opener “Creature of Habit”. With moments running into another, the song seems like a chronological capture of life, much like what would happen in the moment before death when key moments of life might flash before your eyes. Teenagehood, parties, pregnancy, being wasted, being a son, being a partner, being in a band, not wanting to be chained to a job… It’s all here, and is deceptively vulnerable, even though it all comes with a buzz of excitement as well as tension.
Slowly Slowly have excelled with this approach before, with songs such as “Aliens” and its short and sharp lines capturing the rollercoaster of highs and lows required to partake in the mundanity of ‘normal’ life. The approach is infectious, with the rush of syllables of “Creature of Habit” feeling like standing in place between reflecting upon the past and looking to see what lies ahead. Another signature Slowly Slowly feature I’ve come to know and love are their stunningly crafted instrumental build-ups that inspire feelings that are tough to put into words. That’s here too, where the album opener gathers up stresses and pressure and insecurity and it turns into a steam that needs to be blown off.
Being already familiar with “Creature of Habit Pt. 2”, the landing of the chorus of its ‘song sibling’ feels really good, and both hook into stress about life and direction, and Ben’s wondering where he fits (or doesn’t). I wondered whether it was a call to just BE with everything as it is instead of stressing or worrying about each step, so this is how “Come on, take it all in” comes across to me; an internal chastisement to be present with every little thing along the way instead of drifting off into ‘what if’s that corrupt that presence.
Loving the song, how it feels, and the “Fuck my life, this is always going to haunt me” about the Slowly Slowly band name, I’m already warm of heart at the first track of the album. This is a band that feels like it unconditionally invites listeners into their music, and what we do then is up to us.
Second song “19” makes me tear up with every listen, even from its introduction alone. Beautiful emotion ripples through every song Slowly Slowly creates, and “19” is included in that. Pared back at the first verse, the song is gritty, cool, tense, and feels like more of an exposed glare, instrumentally speaking.
I take “19” as a whole as being a capture of a moment in time of a breakup; a moment in time that was achingly painful, wrapped up with nostalgic melodies. Ben had shared with me that the songs he writes are a kind of therapy for him, and he feels like he puts experiences ‘to bed’ by writing about them. “19” seems like one of those.
The second verse flares up into more palpable self-hatred about himself at that moment in time. There’s a grimacing lens upon his “deadbeat” self, wondering how he was tolerated at all, which is kind of heartbreaking in itself. The muting of the cymbals stands out to me, sounding and feeling good, but also seems relevant in a meaningful way due to the ceasing of their connection.
At risk of talking way too much about a single song, I love the swiftly memorable chorus of “19” and its back and forth vocals, as well as the bluntness of “I want to die in this car”. But what consistently ruins me is the refusal to accept the breakup that’s clearer toward the end of the song. Whether it’s how it’s instrumentally laid out, or the insistence of “You’re still leaning on my shoulder”, it moves me every time. It’s an earth shattering moment for someone, like a nightmare where you’re at school or work and you realise you’re completely naked. This is an impactful sliver of time well captured.
From this second song alone, I began to notice how Slowly Slowly were sharing thoughts and moments in their songs that were far less drenched in metaphor as they had been in the past. These songs already felt more honest and open about specific experiences.
In terms of track order, “Safety Switch” seems like a well placed follow up to “19”. It’s a matured take on relationships, but still exploring a similar “are we over or not?” kind of vibe. Ben and Bec Stevens work so well together, with their voices bouncing off each other and with lines deftly delivered with distaste and sharpness (how good is “Like a fucking test”?!).
Consistent winners in the chorus department, Slowly Slowly nail it with “Safety Switch”, almost momentarily making you forget that this is a stalemate of connection and a challenge between two hearts. At loggerheads with one another, they’re also asking what the other is willing to put forward or do to create the ‘next’ from this moment of being stuck.
It’s brilliantly captured, specifically at the pared back drums of the bridge where it all seems to come to the crunch of decision. I appreciate the more insecure sounding vocals here too, where the “I wanna say yes, but..” uncertainty coupled with it seems really authentic in its vulnerability. These two great vocalists impressively capture the tension, hope, and ache of this kind of moment.
“You Are Bigger Than This Town” is a great song title that immediately vibes like a mantra to keep going; leap over the hurdles of small minds and their limited ideas. Ben had shared that the song is a “gee-up” for himself and any other creative people that need the push. His self-described obsession with music has been challenged by other peoples’ ideas of where he should place his energy, such as the “Plan B” that he’s supposed to have in mind.
I’m reminded of the Trophy Eyes song “Something Bigger Than This” based on the title, but also with the way that both songs share the dedication taken toward creative ideas; to stay with them and not go into a “Aliens”-esque kind of rote existence.
“You Are Bigger Than This Town”‘s chorus doesn’t hit for me as memorably as other songs’ choruses have so far, but there’s a lot that I adore nonetheless; the goosebump-inducing harmonies going into the bridge, and the echoey moment midway through which allows the listener to drift into it. Truly capturing in song what was intended, a “Here we go again” pulls the listener back in, to kick into a running pace toward what makes them happy. More noticeably defiant toward its end, I dig the kickass riff and crashing drums at the song’s end.
“Michael Angelo” is an undeniable win for Race Car Blues. The song makes me smile based on its title, as well as because of how it sounds. I think about a timeless creative genius who happens to exist in a modern setting and how he or she would be received. It’s just kind of amusing as well as eye-opening in that perspective. Trashed in YouTube comments or hazed by societal pressure, it’s all stuff that Michael Angelo has to roll with. Doesn’t that make you smile when you think of legendary creators?
With the vocal rhythms and light and infectious beat, “Michael Angelo” is feelgood from the beginning and is uplifting too. The line “Hear the howling winds in the comment section” is probably up there with my all-time favourite lyrics (making me crave more modern day poetic captures of life via song). A sweet guitar melody runs in the background and I feel like I have to hold myself back from stomping my feet or clapping my hands along with this whole spectacle of awesomeness. I generally don’t hold back. ☺️
The line “I’m just gonna carry all of it” is a simple statement that says so much; like ‘Come at me with your worst – your nastiness in the comments, your criticism about my lifestyle, your hate at how much I’m putting into my art – and I’ll roll with the punches as they come’. In this context, it’s another song for the creative hearts that could do with the encouragement to continue, with greater sonic fierceness as the song goes on.
Though our hero (Michael) is battleworn, the repeated insistence of “I’ll be okay, it’s gonna feel good…” with an echoing quality comes across like a decision to roll with the hate, and letting the internal fire fuel the persistence. A guitar solo with a sharpened edge is icing on top of what is undeniably a great song.
Race Car Blues then shifts into “Soil”, which is a lighter and more meandering take from Slowly Slowly. Something of a love song but relatively morbid, the song comes across as both an honouring of someone as well as an apology for the demands they placed upon that person.
It’s actually an impressive capture of love, including the capture of the “20 year long exhale” that happened when they met, as well as the way they exist in each other’s lesser seen corners, and how an autopsy would reveal this in a beautifully reciprocal way. Decomposing and blood and organs never sounded so romantic.
The song grew on me with more listens, but for me its appeal is the gratitude that’s shared via this easy song and encased in rich metaphor. Heart-wrenching dedication to another ripples through this musical story: “I would never have got to this age if you hadn’t found me”.
From our interview, I learned from Ben that “Suicidal Evangelist” is inspired by a visualisation of a negative voice. He says “I viewed it as a slimy late night TV host religious evangelist who was telling you that you’re awful all the time. And so that’s a bit of a chat and just referencing that.” With a wavering voice, there’s weight added to this song beyond what its weighty lyrics already hold. And Ben means what he says! The lyric “And I can tell you how I’m feeling, but only when I’m on stage” refers to the fact that Ben is a very private person in his real life, while being quite candid on stage and through his music.
The song is a farewell note to an old frenemy, this ‘suicidal evangelist’, like old heaviness that has plagued him. As well as this, it’s a note of thanks to what played a part in that farewell and the subsequent making of future plans. The song is so beautiful that it has me bawling on pretty much every listen, especially due to the fact that the “old stranger” barely gets a moment of attention as time has gone on.
The metaphors are brilliant in “Suicidal Evangelist”; the big container ships, the flying like an anvil (hint: it does not), the coldness of streetlights at night, and the new ‘part’ he has. There’s sheer honesty in this that’s emotionally ruining, in the best way. It tells a story that you can easily feel and visualise as it goes on.
My listens become so wrapped up in the story being told that it takes deliberate focus to appreciate the stunningness of the song instrumentally, including its dreamy bass that peeks through the radiance of guitar with Ben’s soaring at “what you tell me you see”. At the peak of this story, the repeating of “there’s no more room in my heart” and the petering out of sound featuring a piano melody and drums and the line is just magic. Instrumentally broad and celebratory, and this pared back ending is just divine.
It’s a definite shift into more fun territory with “Jellyfish”, but I still appreciate the positioning of the track with the one before it; two songs that talk about having a changing of self-view and celebrating that greater optimism. Another love song for Race Car Blues, but more lighthearted and sweet than “Soil”, I adore how it disregards everything that doesn’t exist inside the pea pod with the two of them.
“I know you saved me” hits beautifully home, just as it did when I heard the band play it live before it was released. The mental image that’s created of having someone permanently cheer you on (and also feel like you’re wanting to cheer them on too) is so great, and it’s all so existentially reflective as well as satisfyingly feelgood. With “Jellyfish”‘s release after the songs of St. Leonards, it was admittedly initially jarring to have something so polished and pop-like from the band, but in the context of this album, I’m loving it.
So having the sombre “How It Feels” show up afterward is a pretty stark contrast. The barely there vocals and guitar make for something that feels very intimate. The lyrics give me an impression about a connection with a parent, or someone of an older generation, and seeing their comatose existence; their life not lived fully. It could be a continuation of the theme that’s felt across the album, where the stifling norm is shunned for chasing creative dreams instead.
I like that “How It Feels” is something very different and unexpected on the album. Sobering in its seriousness, I love the line “I told them to you in the hope someday I would believe them”, in a way that’s tough to put into words otherwise. Crashing drums and explosive moments make for this steadily unfolding song to thoroughly hit. I’m not sure I’ve heard Ben’s voice so raw.
As far as impressions go, “Superpowers” was an immediate joy to be with, and I appreciated its sweetness and threads of thought set to acoustic guitar. As shared by the song title, it’s about literal superpowers and their pros and cons in a real world way.
I can’t remember a Slowly Slowly song that feels as natural as this, as though the brain that operates in terms of song structure switched off and stayed deeply in the moment. There’s no choruses, just a steady stream of thought to a gentle guitar.
I found myself crying with “Superpowers” because this beautiful thread of a song is as lovely as it is heartbreaking in its observations about the world. I loved hearing the concern about great powers going ‘sour’ and how bad it would be to be alone in your invisibility or time-freezing, and I loved how it all comes around to an important conclusion.
Songs like this just make me smile, and I love that Slowly Slowly have brought us into an intimate moment with them. Most noteworthy (to my ears) is the verse about immortality, where simple lines capture the importance of knowing our time on earth is finite. This seemingly simple power impacts the awareness of there being something other than this life, or a higher power (maybe), and effects the importance or meaning we give to moments. Us as creatures knowing that we have a end tends to be the ‘fire’ underneath us for learning and awareness and to keep going. If we don’t have that, what happens? I also appreciated that presence was mentioned here, and the importance of loved ones; two themes that have run through Race Car Blues in a way that doesn’t feel like a lecture or overdone.
Homeward stretch of the album gifts us with “Creature of Habit Pt. 2” and the title track. I adore the heightened energy of the former as it comes straight after “Superpowers”, courtesy of its driving beat and hectic vocal rhythms. This second part of the part seems far more outward than the first with its internal musing, but Slowly Slowly do both styles so well.
The final verse of “Creature of Habit Pt. 2” seems reminiscent again of “Superpowers”, and the idea of leaning into simple things as purpose and inspiration, where connection and being loved is more than enough without needing to hook into pressures of fame and fortune.
Feeling like a celebration, gratitude pours through this penultimate song. The backing vocals and harmonies stir emotion in me, and the chorus is cautiously free. I love that this song leads into thinking ahead and planning to just be present and shed fears or ideas of being ‘obsolete’: “But if I wake up, yeah just show up, I could leave this feeling behind”. It’s added to by the ‘fuck yeah’ vibe from the drums that lead into the last chorus.
Oh no, it’s the last song of the album. That feeling of not wanting to let a review ‘go’ is always a good sign of a great album. “Race Car Blues” is indeed something special. It’s like we’re immediately dropped into a place that’s suspended in time, and we’re there along with Ben who’s also suspended in time.
Like a fly on the wall to his past selves and capturing it, it is fitting that his voice seems different to other songs on the album. Tough to put it into words, all I can say is that he’s present in this song, just as he’s been talking about this whole time: Centred and present and unflinchingly observant. And this is reinforced by sound that is instrumentally nostalgic and positive.
I love how you can feel that this song is building, closer and closer to the inevitable blow-out. Repeating the verse, it seems irrelevant that “Race Car Blues” is lyrically simple, as it keeps on climbing and feels amazing in the process. The way a backing vocal has been added is great, forming a kind of vocal ‘round’ with layers of Ben’s voice that feels as full circle as the lyrics share. Enraptured, it’s a musical whirlwind that’s a pleasure to be in. A perfect way to end the album, more and more heart and fire pushed into these words. The last moment of the song and the last moment of the album with Ben so breathless is perfect.
It’s this breathlessness that sums up creative efforts. The exertion to bring things to life, the sacrifices along the way, the determination to go toward your goals, and the fight to persist in following that path; it’s all part of it. I feel like Race Car Blues is a letter to creative minds, encouraging them to continue.
The album also reveals the importance of being present, and does so in a way that’s not lecturing or overdone. There’s an authenticity to all of it which is endearing, as if the album is a hangout with friends, just sharing what’s been going on. With such a natural flow to the album in terms of mood and theme, as well as all of the above commentary that I’ve shared, it’s tough to fault Race Car Blues, so I’m not going to.[See behind the scenes capture of how this review came together via our Patreon]
'Race Car Blues' is what it is and doesn't mind what you think. But it just happens to be exceptionally well done, genuine, and endearingly perfect.