Stereolab have always teetered between two poles: fierce, muscular guitar grooves and intense experimentation on one end; lithe, seductive, ethereal electro-pop on the other. This tension led to a succession of vibrant, instantly recognizable albums. Later attempts to achieve a perfect blend of those bright extremes increasingly produced gray mush, lapsing often into noodly jazz-lounge fizzle and aimless explorations. The band got so predictably prolific that you could almost set your watch to them: another year, another Dada album title featuring microbe hunters and milky nights; another far-out retro-futuristic album cover; and enough Farfisa warbling, hypnotic ba-ba-ba-ing, and minimal droning to send you spiraling into French-Neu!-wave overdose.
After losing key member Mary Hansen to a fatal bike accident in 2002, it seemed even less likely that Stereolab would ever recharge their once incandescent glow. But Margerine Eclipse, the first full-length album since Hansen’s death, draws inspiration from Hansen’s memory instead of shrouding itself in mourning. You can’t but feel a stab of poignancy when you hear Laetitia Sadier singing with herself, using heavily multitracked vocals to fill gaps where her co-vocalist would have chimed in. But the music is so sunny and luminous it’s practically ablaze, radiating positive energy from all angles. The captivating melodic interplay of “Sudden Stars”—a patchwork of cuts from different points in the band’s career—sounds like vintage Stereolab, spiritually summoning Hansen’s gentle warmth.
To cope with the agony of loss, the band loses itself in the beat, in discofied pop numbers like “Margerine Melodie.” “Dear Marge,” the album’s closer, starts out in quiet contemplation reminiscent of 1993’s Space Age Bachelor Pad Music, but then bursts into the addictive pulse-throb of last year’s “Mass Riff”— beginning with Sadier singing “In this mess . . . ,” but ending with her repeating “the joy to love.”