I’d been a fan of the 4AD label since probably 1986 when I first heard This Mortal Coil’s cover of Bill Ogan’s “I Want to Live” (from the Filigree and Shadow album) on WMUA one dark night. I’d fallen in love with the dark moods the label’s bands evoked; not the dark of violence or depression, but the dark as in the absence of light. To me, the sound of Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance always made the most sense to me at one in the morning, when the rest of the world was asleep. Yes, even the stark punk crunch of Pixies in 1988 evoked darkness for me; their music sounded like a band that had just gotten into the studio at 2am after playing a blistering show and channeling that chaotic energy into the wee hours.
So when I first heard Lush in late 1989 via their first EP, Scar, and soon after with their follow-up EP Mad Love (both timed perfectly with my entry into college), I was completely taken in by how bright their music was. The same amount of reverb was there, but it was all made of sparkling beads of light and autumn afternoon breezes. The rainy excitement of “Scarlet” and the tripping evolution of “De-Luxe” were my entryway into the brighter realm of Britpop, at a time when the American alternative sound was veering into the metallic sludge of northwestern grunge. When Lush released the stunning “Sweetness and Light” single in late 1990, I was completely hooked. Its freeing energy and gorgeous simplicity created, to me, a perfect pop song. To this day it’s extremely high on my list of absolute favorite songs.
Their first album proper, Spooky, came out just days after my 21st birthday, and I remember going to Tower with what little money I had at the time to buy it. I didn’t embrace it right away, but that was more due to some personal issues I was having at the time than the music. By that summer I had it on repeat on my Walkman, especially the single “Nothing Natural”. I loved Steve Rippon’s off-kilter, questioning bass line, and especially loved the back end of the song where it completely drops away, leaving the rest of the song soaring for a good few moments before crashing back down for its final measures before finally fading out.
I equally loved Split, even though it felt like a much darker affair (again, I think this was more due to my personal mindset at the time), but after years of listening to Lush, it’s become my favorite album of theirs. I feel it’s where they hit their peak musically, even despite the producing issues they had at the time. It contains my other favorite song of theirs, “Desire Lines”. It’s a slow, plodding song, but deliberately so (and an extremely courageous choice for a single), and it’s probably the first song where I finally grokked to the mathematics of song construction. One can sense its novel-like format, coming in unobtrusive and steady, ebbing and flowing with increasing energy until it finally builds to its middle eight, hitting a shimmering climactic peak before dropping back down to the denouement.
Their next album, Lovelife from early 1996, was a bit of a leftfield surprise for me, as I hadn’t expected a more economic and poppier sound from them, but it was yet another album that got quite a bit of play for me, thanks to it being released just months before I started my job at HMV (I would often play this one and the Gala in the back room while prepping stock for the floor). The track “Ladykillers” was on heavy rotation on WFNX at the time, so I’d hear it almost every day on the way to and from work. And the goofy definitely-not-a-love song “Ciao!” — a brilliant duet with Miki Berenyi and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, and probably the best British musical odd couple since Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl.
I would return to Lush’s catalogue over the years, especially during certain writing sessions for the trilogy where I needed some kind of music that was ambient and dreamlike but also upbeat (otherwise I’d have gone for my regular go-to of Global Communication’s 76:14). Their Ciao! Best of Lush album came out in early 2001 and I’m pretty sure it was in my writing soundtrack bin well until 2003 or so. And now they’ve just released a lovely box set called Chorus, of nearly everything they recorded (it’s currently quite hard to find, but you might want to check their official online store here, that’s where I got it).
I remember Lush being hard to pin down for a lot of alt.rock listeners in the 90s in the northeastern US…they were either too dreampoppy for grunge tastes, or they were too noisy for the fans of the classic chamberpop 4AD sound, but they seemed to fit right in with those other stunning (in sound and in volume) shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver and Ride. It’s been years since they broke up in the late 90s, but thanks to reunions of bands like MBV and Ride, brilliant music documentaries like Beautiful Noise and Live Forever, as especially new noisepop bands like Warpaint, Tamaryn and Wolf Alice carrying the torch, Lush is now fondly remembered as one of the best bands of their time and highly influential.
Lush has recently reunited and are playing a few gigs in the UK soon; they may also be releasing an EP of new songs later this year.