We told you a little while back about Return to Love, the new album from New York’s LVL UP. The record is the band’s third full-length and sees each member, Mike Caridi and Dave Benton (also of Trace Mountains) on guitar, Nick Corbo on bass and Greg Rutkin on drums, bring their own inspirations to the table. This results in a sound that new label Sub Pop say is “marked by reverb, harmony and tape distortion, with a keen balance of pop and experimentation”, and it is clear from the off that signing to a major indie has done nothing to temper LVL UP’s signature sound. As such, the record is thematically interesting, forgoing many of the tropes that even left-field experimental music often falls back on, with their trademark mystical, occultish edge (see, for example, debut full-length Space Brothers), standing out as proud as ever.

The hectic fuzzed-out guitars on opener ‘Hidden Driver’ bring to mind Neutral Milk Hotel with their folk-tinged indie rock melodies. The song has a wonderfully joyous runaway quality, something that really comes to the fore when the drums kick in roughly half way through. Lyrically, it heads straight for the big questions, a breathless and conflicted contemplation of a higher power. It deals with religion in a very twenty-first century way, forgoing dogma or organised practices, but still refusing to give up on something beyond the physical world we experience every day.

“God is peeking
softly speaking
fucking everything
until I slowly do see”

‘Blur’ is all noodly guitar and Caridi’s vocals, a sub-two minute slice of melodic and emotive indie rock. ‘She Sustains Us’ follows a formula that will be familiar to anyone who has followed the band (or the Trace Mountains spin-off project), Benton’s vocals languorous and following the melody, on top of crunchy guitar and additional vocals from Susannah Cutler (aka Yours Are the Only Ears). The laid-back pop punk of ‘Spirit Was’ sounds warm and fuzzily emotional, the lyrics with an opaque, witchy quality, with lines like:

“I feel like a sketch of a perfect circle.

Light still leaks in,
black rings in the water,
I write your name in the dust where the spirit was”

To revert back to our preview, the album’s first single ‘Pain’ is “a track about being hurt in the past, and how such things can follow us into the present and beyond. The details of the past trauma are left vague but scathing lyrics indirectly paint a picture of great suffering, the narrator trying to help the victim wrestle their psychological demons while cursing the person who caused their manifestation…the musical equivalent of all those uplifting promises and mini-epiphanies that are made and exchanged between people desperate to recover.”

‘Closing Door’ is one of several tracks that are familiar from last year’s Three Songs EP, though it comes with a slight makeover and the audiovisual treatment by director Robert Kolodny. The video features Sean Henry looking like a grown up Mike Wheeler, wandering through a forest populated with slo-mo insects and multicoloured ghosts, eventually finding a welcoming room suffused with golden light and friendly faces.

‘Five Men on the Ridge’ is a heavy squall that dissipates as quickly as it arrives, hitting a lull with plodding guitars and gentle vocals before erupting again with a burst of guitar and black roiling clouds of harsh noise. ‘Cut From the Vine’ slows things down, Corbo’s lyrics a mix of pastoral images (“And when it’s quiet you hear animals at night / some can swim and some can fly”) and something slightly more supernatural (“And I see shadows on the hillside / and I hear voices in the wind chime / so if I’m not here in the morning / then I’ll see you on other side”).

‘I’ is another Caridi track, which is reminiscent of the more melodic parts of Hoodwink’d, before a real change of pace on finale, ‘Naked in the River With the Creator’. The song starts as with a slow slide of organ and gentle vocals, giving it a devotional air like some antiphon sung from an altar. Grainy static builds and builds, eventually drowning out all else and heralding heavy guitars and a stomping drum beat. The vocals get stranger, short staccato bursts like an incantation chanted around a wax-dripped table, a mantra to summon some ancient deity from the black water of the lake.

A lot of reviews seem to regard them basically as a reheated version of Pavement or Built to Spill, though such comparisons miss the key part of their spirit. There’s a depth here, an intentional ambiguity that listeners are invited to tune in to and meditate on. LVL UP hit that sweet spot between fun pop songs and something a little more profound, with that essential dash of mystery and weirdness to makes things interesting.

Return to Love is out now on Sub Pop Records. You can get it from the LVL UP Bandcamp page or the Sub Pop webstore, including on CD, LP and cassette.