While making Margerine Eclipse, Stereolab encountered more than their fair share of hardships and heartbreak. Just before the band started the album’s sessions, keyboardist/vocalist Mary Hansen died at just 36 when the bicycle she was riding was hit by a truck in December 2002. Despite their loss, Stereolab decided to continue recording at the new studio they were building in the Médoc region of France but had difficulties completing its construction. It’s something of a miracle, then, that Margerine Eclipse not only exists but is some of the most joyful music of Stereolab’s latter-day career.
The fizzy “Margerine Rock” sounds like it could’ve appeared on a volume of Switched On – and as a matter of fact, the band reinterpreted unused recordings they made for Carlton Television back in 1992 throughout the album. Here and on “Bop Scotch”’s synthy surf-rock, they return to the effortless fun that informed their music prior to Dots and Loops. “Hillbilly Motobike” is another breezy standout, although it’s one of many moments on Margerine Eclipse where Hansen’s absence is palpable. It’s easy to hear where she and Laetitia Sadier would have traded vocals on the exceptionally beautiful “Cosmic Country Noir,” and when Sadier sings “changes are coming anyway” on “The Man with 100 Cells,” there’s a bittersweet cast to its revolutionary viewpoint.
“Feel and Triple” may be the most overt homage to their fallen friend, but the loss of Hansen also shadows songs like “…Sudden Stars.” As coolly lovely as it was on the Instant 0 in the Universe EP, its delicate, measured synth and graceful vocal lines are even more poignant thanks to lyrics such as “If you must go, go.” Elsewhere, Stereolab continue Sound-Dust’s trend of streamlining and tweaking sounds they explored previously. “La Demeure,” a mix of Raymond Scott-like synth sparkles and brass set to unpredictable rhythmic and melodic shifts, plays like a microcosm of the worlds they discovered on Dots and Loops and Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night.
The influence of long-time friend and collaborator Sean O’Hagan surfaces on “Vonal Déclosion”’s twangy guitars and lush strings and on “Dear Marge,” where languid guitars and silky vocals threaten to slide off into a blissful haze before the band reprise the surprisingly convincing disco interlude they introduced on Instant 0 in the Universe’s “Mass Riff.” Moments like this make Margerine Eclipse a strong, surprisingly reinvigorated album from a band dedicated to pushing themselves, no matter what the circumstances.