As a fan of Slowly Slowly, as well as vocalist Ben Stewart’s solo project Congrats, it’s easy to sit back and marvel at the steady stream of creativity that pours from the guy. When a second chapter of the Race Car Blues album was announced, I honestly expected a handful of B-sides that perhaps weren’t up to scratch for the initial release. But instead with Race Car Blues – Chapter 2 we have a full new album to explore?!
When I interviewed Ben in September, he described how Slowly Slowly songs are to him like “my own little homemade statues that I chip away at trying to get the form perfect.” It seems that this chipping away led to blossoming into the second chapter, with Ben sharing in the presser how Slowly Slowly had envisaged “background information that assisted in connecting the dots of Chapter 1” and that this “soon became its own entity and has actually planted a few seeds”. As Ben describes the Chapter 2 tracks as “great stepping stones to where Slowly is headed”, I was keen to immerse in the album to understand what he meant by this.
The album’s first track, “Comets & Zombies”, comes to the ears with such unbridled musical joy that it’s easy to picture Slowly Slowly letting loose on stage while playing it. It makes for an easy, undemanding start to the album. When the lyrics talk about addiction and not wanting to see life “through black plates dilated”, I wonder if the song’s title reflects the burning highs and buzzing neutrals in that experience of addiction. It comes across like a couple who are in the difficult situation alongside each other.
For me, the shift into the “To be honest baby” section of “Comets & Zombies” and the subsequent delivery of truth is where the track came alive. The result was that it asked me to open up more to the listening experience too. I enjoy the feel of the song having a thread of story to follow along with, which then bares even more of itself again when it’s just Ben and bass (Alex Quayle) and a beat (Patrick Murphy). The vocal urgency of wanting to change the situation also hits, and I love the arrival of unexpected drum collisions. I found the chord progression into the song’s end, asking for “just one more day”, surprisingly moving.
The intro of “The Best Bits” is tough to explain; the way an aggressive rhythm lands and is also reinforced by mirrored vocal rhythms (or vice versa). Direct and like intermittent arrows, I soon understand the song as capturing the weird way that we all navigate the world, particularly through a digital lens. Dreaminess in the pre-chorus makes for softened nostalgia in the face of that weirdness, having me understand the song as craving more of that simplicity. Sweaty wildness of the chorus forms an exasperated aggression that I’m not used to from Slowly Slowly, but it works nonetheless.
I’m a sucker for the stream of consciousness style of lyrics/vocals that Slowly Slowly use, and though I don’t have the lyrics at hand, lines like “Tanning in the blue light” make me smile; turning our mindless habitual humanness into zombie-like ritual weirdness. It’s things like this that have me see Ben like a scientist; observing humanity and trying to compute, collecting data and then turning it into song.
And despite the tongue-in-cheek feel of the almost comical observations, there’s a true alienated factor to it; where none of what’s seen makes any sense at all and it’s stressful to be immersed within. “The Best Bits”‘s bridge and climb and building tension sees this stress bubble over into screams of frustration.
Despite its sweetly strummed melody beginnings, “Learning Curve” is a raw cut from the Slowly Slowly collective. Ben’s voice leaves nothing to the imagination, violently shoving everything away from him in bristling porcupine fashion.
The repetition of “It’s a bit like..” is a hook that sunk its claws in easily, as is Ben’s brutal delivery of F-bombs and that aforementioned rawness. The whole experience is relatably endearing, reminding me of goals that get so easily derailed and how noisy one’s head can be. Ethereally layered, the song is heart-wrenching.
Is it just me, or is “Low” easy to love for all of us? Steady and surrounding, cautious self-celebration of recovery flows into admission of kinda enjoying the lows. The noisiness of the chorus makes for a thrashing out against expectations, in contrast to the careful musing in the verses.
The alienation is obvious again to me here in “Low”, reflecting on the bigger picture of connections and the sense of not fitting in. “I’m not part of the picture, I just imitate” is a lyrical gut punch on behalf of the introverted among us. The heaviness of mood and delicate verses have “Low” resonate easily with me.
Fifth track “House On Fire” is a heart-breaker, drawing grief out of me like a clown pulling an endless thread of linked black silk scarves. The swaying and forlorn pace accompanied with light and high vocalisation that floats away feels like heartache on earth, with a loved one who is far away. It’s a song to just sink into and be with, as it sweeps and builds, seeming like love trying to reach the unreachable. The swirling instrumentation and how immersive it is is incredibly moving.
“Darling, I feel like you’re in me on stage”
It’s rough for an empathetic heart heading into “The Internet”. I’m not entirely clear on the specific subject, but it’s another darkly themed cut that reinforces the alienation factor. Steadily building, the rough and full choruses scream defiance in the face of that sense of difference. “The Internet” finds its stride at the instrumental focal point of the bridge which seems to say ‘Fuck the differences and do it anyway’.
Flowing into “Restless Legs”, there’s a heart fluttering intimacy grounded in reality, giving me a similar vibe to what’s shared in “Alchemy”. But it’s not so settled as that anthemic hit, with literal restlessness infecting the connection. Poetic in how it shares a story of an unstable dynamic, my focus is easily upon the vocals, gripping onto whatever happens next. Though there’s some ambiguity (wait, who left who?), the restlessness commonality seems cemented by “Why it took so long” being struck home near the song’s end.
“First Love” (which features Yours Truly) has had a cosy place in my heart since the single released earlier this month. From first listen, I just wanted to swim around in its lyrics that seemed too meaningful and dense to be contained within its sweet swaying rhythms and easy melodies. “And I meant what I said” and “Lonely, dying flame” lines are grabbing hooks that draw me into a blissful chorus that is far more lyrically bittersweet than I’d expected it to be.
Both solo and combined vocals with Mikaila Delgado work perfectly for this together-apart dynamic of the song’s meaning, as well as sweet harmonising and tag-teamed moments. The hurt-loving, pendulum-swinging sentiment makes the song an absolute winner in all of its kamikaze uncertainty. Hopeless romanticism captured in moreish rises and falls and soaring chorus ticks my every box.
Far more solemn and sobering is “Set The Table”, which is trance-inducing with its steady pace and looped chords. It’s another instance when this album has sparked an emotional flood, seeming impossible to be easily present with this raw expression from Ben, his wavering voice revealing the difficulty of what’s being discussed. Heartbreaking, the almost-monotony has me consider the zombie nature of life going on after something difficult and going through the motions.
Metaphor melting with reality, strings and acoustic guitar and an uneasy story, “Set The Table” stands alone for me on this album. Incredibly raw and vulnerable, with a touch of ethereal editing the song’s turning point packs a heaving punch.
As though on a whole other planet, “The Level” is the perfect way to yank the listener forward and carry on through the album. Sounding far more Congrats than I would have expected, the track is Slowly Slowly delivering the promise that they aren’t wanting to be confined by way of genre.
I kind of love how the song itself calls to be taken away from pain, and it acts in that way in the tracklisting too with its pop-esque ballady self. Dancing instead of crying, “The Level” offers a chance to shake off the ‘holy shit’ severity of the emotions before it.
Another slice of something more pop for Slowly Slowly, “Small Talk” confuses the hell out of me, how it can extract so much emotion from me despite me not really understanding what’s happening. Connection wrapped up in metaphors, it’s the emphatic vocals, the distant upward steps, the midway fullness – somehow by the time I get to a colourful kaleidoscopic melody, I’m melted. “Every one of you is small talk”, Ben says, and I’m full of ‘YES’ without a clue, thinking maybe of the one that isn’t, who’s inspiring the sweetness of the gentle outro and the echoey vocalising.
By the time I’m hearing the final track of the album, “Anywhere”, I realise how the step up in production is being revealed for Slowly Slowly. One foot in the world of whatever ‘alternative rock’ means, the nostalgic fluttering of “Anywhere” plays around in other sonic ways. Drum machines, layers, persisting “Ooh-ooh”s, and unexpected vocal rhythms, this final track reinforces the energy of creative freedom that’s glittering through Slowly Slowly’s music.
That’s the aftertaste I’m left with; a “wow” impression of the band’s continued evolution. There’s undeniable heart and blind determination that’s gone into each of the twelve tracks, not to mention how brutally real and open the subject matter is.
I cried, I felt in love, I felt defeated. This isn’t a tacked-on collection of throwaway B-sides, it’s an opportunity to again be beside Slowly Slowly as they navigate life as it is and reflect upon the past. I’m stunned and impressed at how rich with emotion the album is, and I intend to return and marvel at each piece of this whole.
Listen to Slowly Slowly evolve through these twelve tracks, while retaining a firm grasp on poetic expression and emotional authenticity. Emotionally rough at times, but endearingly so.
It's not flawed per se, but I feel the album is just on the cusp of fully soaring.