Swooning megapop from Britpop survivors

The arrival of an album from Dubstar, and one with the title ‘Two’ to boot, can understandably be expected to raise a forest of question marks. For starters, Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie seem irrevocably welded to the Britpop era, what with sharing a label with Blur (Food) and playing their part in soundtracking the 1990s with the hit ‘Stars’ and its zeitgeist-riding mixture of mad-for-it dance beats and Cocteaus-style guitar swirling.

Even those who have followed the duo closely will know there have been times when it looked like the band might have disappeared altogether, although relations between the pair were still good enough for Wilkie to play guitar on Blackwood’s live solo debut. All in all, while it might seem a little perverse to call your fifth album ‘Two’, you can see why they might wish to create a year zero with 2018’s ‘One’ and stick to that plan.

Why are Dubstar still making music some 25 years on from their heyday? The proof is in the listening, and the briefest of encounters with ‘Two’ justifies its existence. A lot of that is surely down to the presence of Stephen Hague, producer to the Pet Shop Boys and New Order. Eminently qualified in the art of making beautiful, glamorous, middle-aged pop music, it takes the slightest flourish of piano and synthetic strings on the LP’s opening song ‘Token’ to leave its indelible mark.

What Hague has done is brought out the best in the pair’s songwriting, casting it in a timeless light. ‘Tectonic Plates’, with its Marr-esque guitar funkiness, and ‘I Can See You Outside’ could have been made any time between 1986 and 2022. There’s a dash of St Etienne’s effortlessness, a Pet Shop Boys-like bravery when it comes to heart-dropping chord changes, a bit of balls-out Italo house… and smiles all round, basically.

There are slower, more reflective moments like ‘Lighthouse’ and the stark, piano-led closer ‘Perfect Circle’ that ensure proceedings never get too formulaic, but even here Hague brings out a bold confidence that was never previously there, not even when he first worked with the band back in the 90s. ‘Two’? Too good to miss, more like.

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