[6 August 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
“I never want an easy life”, sang the Charlatans’ Tim Burgess in 1994. Sure enough, his band’s resilience in the face of all sorts of trials and tribulations is well-documented. In the course of their nearly 20-year existence, the Charlatans have endured crooked accountants, incarceration, testicular cancer, and death. In the wake of 2006’s poorly-received Simpatico album, however, they were forced to deal with a new type of adversary: themselves.
Since they had emerged in the mid-1990s as the last band standing among the UK’s short-lived “Madchester” scene, the Charlatans had been granted “survivor” status. Their steadfastness throughout the subsequent tough-luck period helped them become revered as something of a minor institution in British rock. That, and their albums were solid affairs, highlighted by excellent singles and supported by increasingly powerful live shows. They were thus able to ride the Britpop wave to the top of the UK charts, and survive the phenomenon’s implosion with some dignity and a fanbase intact.
But 2004’s Up At the Lake was heard by many as the sound of a band that had said all it was going to say. Reputation and longevity alone were not going to sustain the Charlatans. This became painfully clear on Simpatico, a reggae-tinged collection that was not as bad as most reviews suggested, but evidenced a troubling lack of direction and focus. Despite an initial UK Top Ten appearance, the album was taken as the Charlatans’ last will and testament. As a musical force to be reckoned with, they were finished. A split or indefinite “greatest hits” tours beckoned.
Really, people should know better than to count the Charlatans out. Given their history, that You Cross My Path exists is not exactly shocking, nor is the fact the band initially offered it as a free download in conjunction with British radio corporation xfm. That it’s their best album in a decade, not to mention one of the best albums of the year, is a bit of a surprise. But here it is, 10 songs that prove, quite literally, that the Charlatans are back and they’re serious about it. And, as added incentive for American audiences, they’ve added a second disc featuring a pair of b-sides, including the Cure-like “Acid in the Tea”, a handful of typically scorching live versions, and a pair of videos.
They’ve ditched the soul and reggae dabbling of the past and pushed Tony Rogers’ Hammond organ back out front, where it should be. And, whether it’s sheer desperation, reinvigoration, or both, they sound more confident than they have since their heyday. The Charlatans have always been up-front about their readiness to embrace styles and sometimes crib bits of melody from their influences. Take a run through their back catalog, and you’ll hear the Stones, Beatles, Lennon, Curtis Mayfield, Pink Floyd, and others. You Cross My Path has taken some heat for its clear and admitted New Order references. But, hey, if every bunch of twenty-somethings with an indie tilt seems to be tipping their hats to Joy Division and/or New Order, why not the Charlatans, a fellow Manchester band who are at least old enough to honestly say that they grew up with the stuff?
Whatever influences they’ve taken on, the Charlatans have always had their own unmistakable, loose-limbed sound, and You Cross My Path is no different. “Oh! Vanity” may bear resemblance to “Waiting for the Siren’s Call”, but the organ swells and punishing rhythm are all Charlatans. “Bad Days” and “Missing Beats (Of A Generation)” even have the grungy bass and moody keyboards of vintage New Order, but they manage a groove that longtime Charlatans fans will recognize and appreciate, and their snappy choruses have the urgency of a band that’s clawing its way up from the murk. The mixing by Alan Moulder (Curve, Smashing Pumpkins) lends the proceedings a sharp, contemporary feel.
And it’s not all “spot the New Order reference”, either. “Mis-takes” has that vintage, easy-going feel and effortless, meltaway chorus that was mostly missing on Simpatico. The title track is a mean, punky little thing, sneering guitars and creepshow organ cutting through Burgess’ rapid-fire verbiage. Speaking of Burgess, You Cross My Path is tied together with his nasal, slight, yet by-now-familiar drawl. He’s newly sober, and perhaps it’s not surprising that with an unenhanced view he sees the world as a pretty dark place. In fact, the moody, at times downright doomy, tone is the album’s most unexpected, jarring feature. Failed relationships, frustrations, and disappointments are the focus of most every song. “You wouldn’t want to be with me alone”, he sings on “A Day for Letting Go”, and while his touchiness lends the album some of its edge, it also saps some of the life-affirming vibes you might expect from the Charlatans’ music.
This newfound darkness has its benefits, though, as well. “My Name Is Despair” is a credible stab at a Depeche Mode-like trudge. “Bird”, however, is a true revelation, taking time to build atmosphere before a weeping lead bass line sends it soaring to places the Charlatans have never been before. In a nice sort of completing of the circle, the songs sounds like nothing so much as the shoegazer bands who were the Charlatans’ contemporaries in the ‘90s. Latter-day Swervedriver, in particular, comes to mind. Currently, the Charlatans are managed by Alan McGee, former head of shoegazer spearhead Creation Records.
It’s a synergy that’s been hard to come by for the Charlatans of late, and a sign that reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.