It doesn’t feel as though Slowly Slowly were given as fair a chance as they should have back in 2018. St. Leonards was the sort of album that really could’ve elevated them to somewhere significant with the sort of emo that was personal without being overwrought or cloying and melodies that were striking to just the right degree, but for whatever reason, that didn’t seem to happen. And thus, to see Race Car Blues arrive as an exit point to a period of perceived inadequacy and disenchantment for frontman Ben Stewart, the pieces do connect fairly effortlessly there. It’s the sort of shift in focus that benefits the brand of emo that Slowly Slowly are looking to occupy, being deeply rooted in the pop-centric variety of the early- to mid-2000s that could temper its strains of cynicism and self-criticism with uplifting scope, and even if it hasn’t quite took on yet, framing as fertile as what Race Car Blues has definitely makes the potential feel all the more tangible.
And if there was ever a way to prove how beneficial that elevation could be, Race Car Blues is pretty much as good as Slowly Slowly could’ve come up with. As a detailled and layered cross-section of emo and alt-rock-adjacent pop-rock that taps into nostalgia but never coats itself in it, this really is great work, and when that can be bent around an emotional core that has intelligence on top of personality and contorting, lucid emotionality, the results is some of the most effectively direct emo to be released this year. As much as it feels as though beats are being hit throughout, it’s what Slowly Slowly do with them that make Race Car Blues so great, and how that comes together as something far greater than the sum of its parts.
It certainly helps that this particular brand of emo feels much more robust in terms of composition, drawing on bands like Jimmy Eat World and Saves The Day in its bolder presentation, but still having an adequate amount of gruffness to keep everything nice and balanced. Of course, to zone in on those melodies reveals the first of Slowly Slowly’s key strengths, in how tremendously vibrant the likes of Safety Switch and Jellyfish are within their emo-pop mould, but also in how comfortable the grittier, tenser version of that same approach plays out with the likes of Creature Of Habit and Soil. The branches that Race Car Blues opens out into can be clearly seen, but the central focus remains steadfast throughout, with earthy production that completes the throwback package without feeling dated even once and keeps everything on a noticeably even keel. For all the difficulty that many bands would have with a track like Superpowers in which the sole, solemn guitar could easily feel overshadowed by everything going on around it across the rest of the album, there’s a knack for a consistent throughline in mood that works here, and it’s something that Slowly Slowly honestly excel at. Really, the only noticeable dip comes in a strangely noticeable trough in terms of production size on You Are Bigger Than This Town which winds up being the most flaccid cut here; otherwise, Race Car Blues strikes deeply into a richness from all angles and makes the most of it.
That definitely feels necessary when considering what this album is trying to embrace, as Stewart breaks out of his own doldrums to find happiness and satisfaction with himself, even if that isn’t always easy. The dense, tongue-tied uncertainty of Creature Of Habit certainly sets that scene with the narrator thrown into the world of adulthood where resilience and self-sufficiency is more crucial than ever, while the jostling inner conflicts on Safety Switch and memories of emptiness and doubt on How It Feels threaten to rear up and consume once again. But all of that’s overshadowed by Stewart’s positivity that feeds into just how triumphant this album can feel, ignoring those who want nothing more than to tear down his own ambitions as an artist on Michael Angelo, and taking pleasure in small joys in life for the first time on Jellyfish, to where the flipping of Creature Of Habit in its redux later on comes with same scrappiness, but rooted in hope and the desire to move forward. It’s where a track like Superpowers feels so emblematic of the album’s mantra as a whole – it’s all well and good to want to take on the world and feel unbeatable at every turn, but in the long run, emerging from the lowest ebb, just finding that one point of contentment is so much more rewarding and special.
It might seem maudlin to some, but in the same way that Jimmy Eat World have made great, life-affirming music through the same type of sentimentality, Slowly Slowly are laying down their claim to reaching a similar point with Race Car Blues. It’s a step up from their last album, no doubt, but one for which the improvements are so clearly highlighted and well-rounded. The foundations were already solid, but when the writing and instrumentation has undergone such a profound improvement basically across the board, it’s worth singing the praises of a rock album that’s holding its own within its field, but does what it does to exquisite effect across the board. If St. Leonards was the album to give Slowly Slowly their pedestal, Race Car Blues should be the one to rightfully send it to the stratosphere where they belong, such is the power and potential this album has to do some absolutely great things.
For fans of: Jimmy Eat World, Motion City Soundtrack, Columbus
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Race Car Blues’ by Slowly Slowly is released on 28th February on UNFD.