A Parrot for Juan Gris
Like Zombies rising from the grave, the ghosts of rock music past haunt and harry even the more iconoclastic among today’s pool of Promethean songwriters. In this brave new world of 21st century post-global culture, we still hear these now-legendary specters skulking about freshly pressed records, lurking behind each beat and every melody. With all bands shouldering their fair share of debt incurred by this collective inheritance, most critics have come to rely on simplistic equations to situate and describe contemporary albums. Based on the often inane combination of daytime drama plotlines, musical mad-libs, and linear algebra, reviews often sound something like this: Felt accost The Byrds in a dark alley and rob them of their Simon & Garfunkel tapes. Or this: Arthur Lee fathers Slint’s secret love child who’s later adopted by Ian Curtis.
Well, let’s not turn our noses on tradition. Just give me a second to pull down some stars from the rock music cosmos so I can chart your voyage through Suburban Light, the latest album from UK trio, the Clientele. Ok, here goes—The Beach Boys plan a New Zealand getaway with The Smiths, but Brian Wilson and Morrissey end up trading tender stories of gloom and woe in the coffee shop of a fogged in Heathrow.
With that bizarre tableaux, I’ll assume we have satisfied the need to entomb Suburban Light in a historical vacuum of archived inspiration, and can warn against the danger of trapping the Clientele in a miasmic web of musico-cultural allusion. Far too often rock reviews focus on roots and influences—evaluating whether the latest attempt to redefine and recycle, translate and update, results in a charmingly clever nod of the head or cheaply mimeographed carbon copy.
Admittedly, the temptation to subject Suburban Light to this kind of clinical dissection is rather hard to resist as the collection of singles is rich with references to early-‘80s somber-pop, nick drake styled Brit-folk, and quirky ‘60s psychadelia. The shimmering plucks of lo-fi fuzzed out guitars recall the trademark atmospherics of Galaxie 500 and the softly jangling melodies seem to channel kiwi-rockers, like the Clean and the Bats. Add to this mix, Alasdair Maclean’s grizzled whispers and metaphoric mewling and you have a musical haze of sullen candor that balances equally the sincere, mellow pop sentiments of Felt and the funereal melancholy of Joy Division (minus their inimitable misery, of course).
Suburban Light is an album of leisure and reflection that showcases Maclean’s dirgy anecdotes of evening strolls and small town fairs spun through poetic lines about misty streets and twilit nights, shooting stars and fading seasons. From lazy summer days to bleak wintry mornings and rainy autumn afternoons, the Clientele evoke half formed memories of desire and disorientation that leave you floating between lingering disappointment and blossoming hope.
Like Joseph Cornell, the proto-surrealist sculptor whose work adorns the Labyrinthine Greenhouse (the Clientele’s internet home), Suburban Light “combines the formal austerity of Constructivism with the lively fantasy of Surrealism ... arranging fragments of once beautiful and precious objects ... to create poetry from the commonplace” (WebMuseum, Paris). Playing with the archetypes of genres past and present, the Clientele conduct a de-politicized highly aesthetic detournement, breathing capital R Romanticism into the generic, fashioning something magical out of the mundane. Through canned lines like, “And I want you so bad in my heart, and I touch your shadow fingers in the dark, and the stars are falling on this night like rain through the silence of the dark October lanes” (“Rain”), The Clientele weave an illusory beauty of syrupy verse and pop-rock minutia.
Isolating the Clientele’s xyz coordinates turns into quite an amusing endeavor that confirms Alasdair Maclean, James Hornsey, and Mark Keen as mandarin dandies who wear their ancestry with knowing pride. But, not even a stockpile of million dollar metaphors and canny little combos can communicate the rare and subtle pleasures captured on Suburban Light. With rock-music wraiths heralding the end of artistic innovation how does the Clientele’s marriage of cloying doggerel and ornamental Baroque n Roll manage to reflect the ineffably sublime? To answer this question we need only return to “Joseph Cornell,” the sixth track off Suburban Light.
Just as the Cabaret Voltaire has sadly closed its doors and the “Flowers of Evil” have wilted and died, the once confounding and incendiary Dadaism of Joseph Cornell has gently been absorbed into the modern canon. Today, the practice of conjuring up rock legends and musical heroes through a mixed bag of allusion, homage, or outright theft seems to have met with the same fate, slipping quickly from an imaginative form of neo-expressionism to the all too trite blueprint for early 21st century musical craftsmanship.
Instead of rejecting this lowbrow dogma, however, the Clientele seem to embrace formulaic amalgams. Almost on cue, Maclean observes that, “Something’s here but something’s gone ... something’s wrong, but something’s right” (“Joseph Cornell”), acknowledging a loss and sharing an ambivalence born of nostalgia and mourning—a fond remembrance of obsolete passions. The Clientele extend the concept of rock-recycling to the point where their music—compositionally, thematically, lyrically—becomes hollowed out form. A vehicle for their hushed statements of intangible emotion.
Suburban Light innocuously comes and goes. After even an attentive listen, the characters, chords, words and hooks serenely fade and all that remains is a latent expressive purity. These muted whispers and gestural brush strokes impart an elusive, almost imperceptible warmth, an already forgotten memory of your time with the Clientele. Attempt to set it to words and you’ll stammer out maudlin shards of lovelorn 10th grade poetry—butterflies in your stomach and lumps in your throat, giddy smiles of nerve-racked flirtation.
Where most musicians seem content to respond and resignify, toying with mix and match flip-books, the Clientele move beyond pedigree charts and musical genealogy, eclipsing cultural context and conceptual frameworks. More than just another studious act of devotion to rock gods of the past, Suburban Light is an oneiric expression of loss and hope that borders on unreality—a stash of fleeting sensations and shadowy dreams hidden beneath the Clientele’s post-pop machinations.