UK outfit returns with first full-length in nearly a decade—and in fine form, too.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
To become a London cabbie, drivers must past an exhaustive test referred to as “the Knowledge.” It can take years to master the 25,000 streets the exam can cover, including not only names and directions but a good portion of what’s on them, from neighborhood parks and mini-monuments to corner pubs and restaurants.
In their own way, and over the course of six glistening LPs of romantic psych pop, the London-by-way-of-Hampshire band The Clientele has also mapped out London and environs, using geography to spark memory, and through it chart an audio cartography. As British in their own right as those black cabs, the Clientele’s Autumnal melodies, surrealist imagery and lush arrangements create their own state of transport.
That goes for the band’s first full-length in nearly a decade, Music for the Age of Miracles, too, issued by North Carolina’s Merge label. Drop the needle on the bewitching layered harmonies and strings of “Lunar Days,” for instance, and the song drops you in November London where “you’re lost in the leaves” and the “beaten copper tongues” ring through the cavernous streets. The song is a meditation on the city’s ghost-town-at-night financial center — “I walked along the street with no one home/Lamps no one lit, roads no one drove,” Alasdair MacLean sings — but captures the LP’s predominant alone-in-a-crowd vibe.
But MacLean’s narrators—often insomniacs, judging by their nightly perambulations—actually rarely walk alone. They navigate the city’s streets and alleyways in demi-dream states where church bells, local parks and night skies serve as compass points for specific reminiscences. Song tempos even convey brisk walks or contemplative strolls, and the “constellations echo lanes, the pylons and the still parade,” as one song puts it. Lyrics recall old friends, ex-lovers and younger selves, forming a Sixth Sense-like procession of familiar faces, places and events that simultaneously highlights and dilutes the city’s anonymity. On “Falling Asleep,” over a plucked nylon-string guitar and the exotic notes of a santoor (a Persian dulcimer), these “dream-like” states provide the ghosts “of remembered chords/which still can make such radiance.”
And at their best here, The Clientele combine these memory-inducing locales and wistful melodies into truly sparkling moments. Opening track “The Neighbour” is all jangly guitars and soaring harmonies, an “evening’s hymn” where the “crowds thinned out until we were alone.” “Everyone You Meet” adds elegant horns and strings (arranged everywhere by new band member Anthony Harmer) to the blend, creating a tableau where it seems perfectly reasonable that master musician Orpheus would be “singing through the wires.” The ecstatic title track weds memorable images — “Swallows wheel from sun-bleached eaves/Trucks glow on peripheries”—to a beatific melody and, in the process, wraps up themes which have been threading their way through the entire LP. Propelled by James Hornsey’s full-neck bass runs and more horn fanfares and strings, “The Age of Miracles” celebrates the reflective hours when we reshuffle our sense of self and exhale with the rest of the city’s denizens — “Lately I’ve been living like I’m so far away/Like I’m somebody else/In some other place,” MacLean notes before finding in the city a rebirth through music and the simple “dance of our days.”
The band pushes out from their comfort zone on “Everything You See Tonight Is Different From Itself,” which replaces guitars with arpeggiated harp runs and adds programmed drums and a brass section for a slightly dubby feel; file under interesting if unnecessary experiment. At the other end of the spectrum, MacLean’s reading of an as-yet-unpublished novel excerpt on “The Museum of Fog” is a conceit that mirrors—too closely, it turns out—”Losing Haringey” from 2005’s Strange Geometry. The story of current MacLean stumbling upon a pub where 16-year-old MacLean first got turned on to live music is a thematic fit, and the music strolls by pleasantly enough. But the sum of its parts doesn’t add up to an interesting—or unique—whole.
Those are minor outliers, though, on a record that suggests a decade off hasn’t dulled the Clientele’s strengths. On the contrary, Miracles highlights the band’s ongoing ability to transport us fully into its world—to offer us its version of the Knowledge, if you like. And as the LP title suggests—in nuanced irony, of course—music today may be digitized, compressed and sent whooshing through the ether at a button-click or swipe, but it’s what it does on the receiving end that’s still the real miracle.