The narcissism of small differences
Over an illustrious 21-year career, Tindersticks have been a lot of things, but I’m not sure they’ve ever been baffling before. And I’m not sure how else to describe Across Six Leap Years, ten of their songs rerecorded in a way that’s close enough to the original versions to cause confusion. It’s not a best-of or greatest hits collection; the band describe these as songs that got lost along the way. It’s not a live album; it was recorded at Abbey Road. And whatever the feelings the band had as they redid these songs, it’s not really any kind of reconfiguration. Three of the ten tracks here are present seemingly as much to be rescued from relative obscurity (that is, into relatively lesser obscurity); “Friday Night” and “Marseilles Sunshine” from Staples’ first solo album when Tindersticks went on hiatus after 2003’s Waiting for the Moon (they would eventually reconvene with half of the original members, most notably losing guitarist, violinist, and arranger Dickon Hinchcliffe), and the closing “What Are You Fighting For?” was intended for the end of 2008’s excellent The Hungry Saw but wasn’t finished in time and wound up on a tour-only 7” instead. Those solo tracks are the first indication that this album hews close to the originally released versions; it’s nice to have them back under the Tindersticks name, as intended, but they just sound like higher fidelity versions of the solo tracks.
Frontman Stuart Staples’ notes on the songs the band decided to redo shed a lot of light onto why and how Across Six Leap Years exists the way it does, but also gives the project a bit of a sad cast. I’d imagine Tindersticks are far from the only band to look at their earlier material and regret certain production or performance choices, to feel they have “songs that have proved to me to need a tenderness and understanding that I was unable to give them as a younger man on a first meeting, they have grown, their sentiments have grown, they talk about so many of the experience I have had since then.” Certainly Staples’ rich, whiskey-barrel baritone is if anything a richer instrument now than it was then, but we’re talking about the narcissism of small differences here; both his voice and the band (in all incarnations) have had a solid grasp of how these songs work, and in many cases I had a do an immediate A/B comparison to actually tell what was different. Staples’ notes are unabashedly emotional about the problems they had with some of these songs and how good it felt to have them finally become what they were always meant to be. It’s just a big disconcerting to play the record and realize how relatively subtle many of those changes are to the outside listener.
And the changes aren’t always unambiguously positive. Staples talked about how “we were trying so hard to be loose” about their cover of Odyssey’s “If You’re Looking for a Way Out”, originally on 1999’s Simple Pleasure, and the version here is definitely looser. There’s a palpable joy in Staples’ performance now, it’s less strained and anguished. There are ways that it’s a better vocal, and he definitely sounds more comfortable with his performance. But given the subject matter of the song, the fact that the earlier version sounded more like a man going out of his comfort zone actually works in its favour. This version is lovely to have, and it would be odd to begrudge that wonderful sense of joy in performance it has, but it doesn’t supplant the original for exactly that reason.
Simple Pleasure’s version of “I Know That Loving” is titanic, a towering expression of angst, guilt, doubt, self-loathing, and pleas for forgiveness. It’s a song that locates blame both in the narrator’s own choices and the way his background and upbringing have damned him from the start, and the closing section of call-and-response between Staples’ desperate sinner and Gina Foster and Jenni Evans’ perfectly pitched backing vocals (a mixture of compassion, disdain, and unreachable beauty), as the strings and horns swirl in the background, is one of the most intense passages in their discography. Here, Staples reveals that he spent hours trying to sing it; “I felt there was a glass ceiling above me that I just couldn’t break through.” Foster is back for this version, and is still excellent; actually, this version is excellent in general, although adding an extra minute of instrumental fadeout is maybe the only outright bad choice made on Across Six Leap Years. And again, as unpleasant as the recording experience might have been for Staples back then, this is exactly the kind of song that benefits from a singer who sounds like he’s trying to break through into something, as opposed to one who’s already made it.
The other big difference on “I Know That Loving” is one that comes up repeatedly on these versions; deliberately or not, Hinchcliffe’s string arrangements are softened or downplayed from what they used to be. The guitar and horns at the end of “I Know That Loving” very much take the spotlight from the strings; elsewhere, “A Night In” is probably the song here that benefits the most from Staples’ more lived-in voice (both thematically and performance wise), but the densely sawing, martial strings from the original version are replaced by something more conventionally (if beautifully) sad; it changes the emotional timbre of the song into something less complicated, downplaying the defiance of a narrator that we’re already not supposed to be able to straightforwardly trust or not. There are always compensations when the arrangements are altered like that; Waiting for the Moon’s “Say Goodbye to the City” loses a certain fervid urgency from the almost shrieking strings, but Foster’s much more prominent vocals at the end are if anything more thrilling.
In the end, that kind of tradeoff points to the only way you can really take Across Six Leap Years; none of these versions are really necessary, at least for listeners (it sounds as if making the record was both important and cathartic for the band), and while it’s as good a place for newcomers to start as any and superfans will probably enjoy teasing out the small differences, it’s the least essential thing Tindersticks have ever released. That it’s still a set of incredible songs, played by an excellent band, is a lot more than many bands can manage two decades in.