Britain's Swim Deep choose to "feel good" on their third studio album, 2019's pop-infused Emerald Classics. It's a sentiment they express on the lead-off "To Feel Good" and one that could seem trite if not for lead singer Austin Williams' grounded lyrics about growing up on the dole, dreaming of a music career, and as on "0121 Desire," realizing the need to celebrate small joys like hanging out with friends at your local pub. The pub in question, and the inspiration for the album's title, is purportedly an establishment called The Emerald in the band's hometown of Birmingham. It serves as a kind of symbolic touchstone for Williams and Swim Deep, who fill Emerald Classics with buoyant anthems about choosing to take a positive view in light of the often dark and depressing nature of life in the 21st century. It's an outlook that almost threatens to blur towards irony à la the "choose life" monologue from Trainspotting, in part because it comes packaged with such '90s-style acid house and underground pop aesthetics (though it should be noted that Williams explicitly attempts to reject nostalgia as "poison" on the track "Drag Queens in Soho"). Helping achieve this dichotomous energy is producer Dave McCracken, who has previously helmed projects by such Swim Deep forebears as the Stone Roses' Ian Brown, Depeche Mode, and Beyoncé. Of those artists, Brown's laid-back, post-Madchester electronic psychedelia is the closest to the sound Swim Deep are going for on Emerald Classics. If their sophomore album, 2015's Mothers, found them moving away from the more esoteric, shoegaze-esque indie rock of their debut and towards a hooky, '90s-style dance-pop, then Emerald Classics fulfills that transformation with songs that float upon shimmery synths, woozy club beats, and brightly ringing guitars. That bright, floating quality applies to the songwriting as well, as cuts like the "Top of the Pops," "World I Share," and "Father I Pray" are more straightforward and not as sonically experimental as past work. Occasionally, that pop-oriented approach combines with Williams' soft, breathy vocals to momentarily sap the album of its momentum. That said, there are engaging moments here, as on the shimmery, electronic-tinged "Happy as Larrie" and the effusive '80s club jam "0121 Desire." Elsewhere, tracks like "Sail Away/Say Goodbye," with its spiraling digital keyboard hook, and "Bruised," with its gospel-esque chorus, smartly evoke a combination of Peter Gabriel and Primal Scream. There's a maturity to Swim Deep's aesthetic choices on Emerald Classics that transcends the brash discovery of their first two albums, speaking rather to their growing sense of place in the world. Similarly to how grungy Gen-Xers both co-opted and rejected the music and aesthetics of their boomer parents, on Emerald Classics Swim Deep conversely embrace and slough off the remaining dust of '90s Brit-pop nostalgia. They may have been inspired by the music that was at its peak around the time they were born, but they aren't going to drown in its wake. As Williams sings on "Never Stop Pinching Myself," "Was it freer, more fun, more bohemian? Today, I don't care about your yesteryear."
AllMusic Review by Matt Collar