The Return of the Clerkenwell Kid is so British it should come with a plate of chips and a Benny Hill compilation. It’s not exactly an unpleasant sensation, especially if you’re familiar with Jarvis Cocker’s particularly shady brand of English wit, but neither is it necessarily distinctive. Ironically for such a distinctively national character, The Real Tuesday Weld does not appear to have a British record label. I find that just a little odd…
In any event, this album is an attempt at replicating the strange arc of a love affair, from the beginning to the bitter end over the course of 17 tracks. If it sounds a bit ambitious, that’s because it is. But then again, the first Real Tuesday Weld album was a companion piece to Glen Duncan’s novel I, Lucifer. Literary ambitions and concept albums can sometimes add up to a rather unspectacular mess. I haven’t heard I, Lucifer but based on The Return of the Clerkenwell Kid, I can say that Stephen Coates (the one-man band behind the project) is a competent, if overly ambitious songwriter with a clear grip on his obvious limitations as a vocalist. The whole thing doesn’t really seem to want to congeal, however, which makes for a frustratingly hit-and-miss listening experience.
The album’s first proper track, “Anything but Love”, gives some indication of the overall flavor. Over a slightly anachronistic shuffle-swing, Coates intones that “I’ve gotta change the way that I’m living, / Give up the fags, fast food and the women.” The instrumentation is mostly quite gentle, replicating a certain brand of winsome English pastoral through the use of quietly strummed acoustic guitars and well-chosen samples.
Echoes of the past, such as the crackling vinyl samples that dot the album, are a constant presence. Additionally, Coates’ songwriting seems to hearken back to certain historical modes, Tin-Pan Alley and Cole Porter being obvious touchstones. The conscious antiquarian bent sits uneasily with his dependance on electronic textures and rhythms. Sometimes it works, as on the lounge-flavored “L’amour et la Mort”, but other tiimes it merely fosters the unfortunate suggestion of TV-soundtrack blandness.
The album works best when the sparse atmospherics mesh with Coates’ spry and winsome lyrical touch, as on “Daisies” and “Little White Birdies”. At other times, however, the project can merely seem repetitive. Modesty is a virtue, but a surfeit of modesty can grate. Listening to The Return of the Clerkenwell Kid sometimes seems an impossibly precious pastime, like Belle & Sebastian with samplers.
Which is not to say, in any case, that this is a bad album. On the contrary, I can easily imagine it striking a responsive chord with a certain breed of anglophile. But Coates’ songwriting it simply not ambitious enough to merit the kind of sustained exposure that a more demanding audience might expect. For some this could probably be an easy album to love, but it’s a hard album to like.