Having scored their fluke hit with "Stars," Hum hunkered down and created a follow-up album that went nowhere, leading to the band's splintering. An unfortunate result all around, because, arguably, Downward Is Heavenward isn't merely the group's best album, but a lost classic of '90s rock, period. Taking their sense of the epic and the equal but opposite sense of the tender and personal to striking new heights, the quartet finds a remarkable balance throughout between world-shaking arrangements and gentle connection. Opening track "Isle of the Cheetah" sets the tone, Matt Talbott's singing the still center of a just wonderful, huge rock-as-symphonic-burst song. Other individual highlights abound: "Ms. Lazarus," which turns from a tight little post-punk skip into a tempo-shift-arrested rock-out, "Afternoon with the Axolotls," and its amazing balance between Talbott's delivery and skyscrapers of feedback and drums, the squirrelly interaction between the watery guitars and Talbott on the verses of "Dreamboat" before another bomb blast. What's especially nice on Downward Is Heavenward is that, while sounding as detailed and precise as possible, even when completely letting go, there's none of the Brian Wilson fetish that ultimately overdetermined so much end of the millennium rock with indie leanings. No orchestral touches, horns, or the like -- keyboards, yes -- but otherwise the band relies on the traditional rock lineup to come up with its results. Ironically there are a couple of hints of bands inspired by the Beach Boys -- "If You Are to Bloom" has the same feel of 1992-era Boo Radleys -- while in turns pointing the way to the work of 12 Rods. But ultimately, this is Hum as Hum, catalyzing the calmest of singing and delivery via some of the biggest sounding music around. All this and no cheap attempt to rewrite "Stars" either -- Hum, clearly, had something special.
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AllMusic Review by Ned Raggett