Life Is Sweet is just a great pop album. What, you say, no underlying concept of post-millennial dread? No sweeping political commentary? No. No irony, genre-splicing, retro- this, or nu- that? Not really. Not even a nifty download scheme? Erm, no. This is it. Eleven songs, 35-and-one-half minutes, lots of tunes.
Remember when things were so simple?
To be fair, in its purity, modesty, and brevity, Life is Sweet is a bit of a throwback. A throwback, specifically, to the British and British-inspired indie guitar pop of the mid-1980s and early 1990s. The Housemartins, the Go-Betweens, the Wedding Present, later the La’s. And the Smiths. Especially the Smiths. From Ben Siddall’s jangly, teeter-tottering guitar riffs, to the no-frills production, to Siddall’s flat-yet-charming, Morrissey-esque warbling, there’s a very strong sense of Manchester’s finest circa 1985. In all the best ways. Only Life Is Sweet is too vibrant, too sharp and effortless to be some kind or rehash. It’s too timeless to be retro.
Life Is Sweet marks little change in The Lodger’s overall sound, established on 2007 debut Grown Ups and the singles that preceded it. Instead, that sound is refined and matured by strengthened songwriting. No, there’s nothing as relentlessly catchy or jaunty as “You Got Me Wrong”. However, the album’s many pleasures are more substantial and potentially longer-lasting. There’s the soaring chorus of the Steve Harley-meets-Brian Wilson opener, “My Finest Hour”. Or the way Siddall’s rapidly-strummed acoustic and guest Cate Tully’s violin quite nearly sweep the gorgeous “Honey” right off the ground. Or the moment when the verse of “The Conversation”, a hard-charging progeny of “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, takes a left turn into the lush, half-time, Hammond-padded chorus. These are the kinds of seemingly simple moments that transcendent pop turns on, and Life Is Sweet is rife with them.
If there’s any department where the Lodger fails to meet the marks set by its influences, it’s Siddell’s lyrics. Reflective, nostalgic, often bemused, they aren’t bad but aren’t entirely distinctive, either. Siddell tends to deal in clichés and generalities instead of searching out special details to match those revealed in the music. “It’s a funny idea / Trying to caress the people / That you don’t care about anymore”, he observes in “The Conversation”. A clever enough line, but a sentiment that Morrissey got the most out of 20 years ago in “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”.
Musically, Siddell hits the mark harder and more squarely when he deals in pure, uptempo pop. Single “The Good Old Days” is the prime example here, bolstering Siddell’s trademark high-pitched guitar licks with a surprisingly elastic disco-funk rhythm. Likewise, Joe Margetts’s angular bassline lends the verse of “An Unwelcome Guest” the punch of early Go-Betweens, before the song falls into a chorus that warrants the coining of the term “McLennanesque”. Even if the words of “Nothing (Left to Say)” ape the Smiths with lessened returns, the two-stepping rhythm and breezy melody pay fine tribute. When Siddell’s lyrics are paired with equally moody music, as on “Running Low”, the listening pleasure is only slightly diminished. And the yearning, slide-guitar-led coda to album closer “Famous Last Words”? Pure, heartfelt bliss.
No, things were never that simple. But Life Is Sweet, like any great pop album, makes it seem that way.