The tracks on Earth Division would sound most at home accompanying some short, noirish, otherwise silent film of middling quality. They’re dramatic, with a sense of economy that’s become increasingly customary over the last few Mogwai albums, but oddly self-effacing, too. Whatever their length, Mogwai songs specialize in not announcing their presence or power until you’ve begun to take them for granted — and yet these four numbers play all their cards right away: lush orchestration, pro-forma sinister vibe, a curious absence of any real rhythm section. They simply begin, evolve, repeat, and end, very much as though they were designed to play out while we directed our attention elsewhere.
As far as I can tell, there is no particular elsewhere, at least not in the way there was with Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait or the Clint Mansell/Kronos Quartet collabo on The Fountain. This leaves Earth Division to do its own showing and telling. So what does its blandly “cinematic” quality show, what story does its low level of intricacy tell? Maybe it’s an exercise in restrained menace, where the restraint is the most menacing thing about it. Maybe it shows off how swiftly Mogwai can accomplish a certain vividness of detail, the way “Get to France” conjures the fanciful foreboding of something like Coraline, the way the Fuck Buttons-y “Drunk and Crazy” conveys wintry desolation with no more than a few quick strokes. Or maybe it’s an ill-advised stripping down of the usual elements: It’s easy to imagine “Does This Always Happen?” as a conventional post-rock song, which is instructive enough, but the imagined song is better than the actual one.
To guess at the point this way is probably to miss it, of course, though it occurs to me that if it came from a band I enjoyed and respected less than Mogwai I would have no qualms dismissing Earth Division as self-indulgent, reckless in its refusal to admit that not every three-minute sketch needs to be packaged and sold and discussed. (And yet here we are.) But Mogwai is a band whose work rewards attention and also familiarity, which is a much harder thing to pull off; for what it’s worth, it’s the only rock band for whom I can summon the enthusiasm Phish fans feel for different recordings of the same song. If there’s a greater value to Earth Division — and I’m not going on record saying there is — maybe it’s an affirmation that Mogwai’s least inspired, least self-sufficient work also brings something intellectually worthwhile to its tried-and-true counterparts. That’s a bit of a reach for the elsewhere, but so be it.