This bittersweet, dreamy album takes all the band's strengths -- both haunting and sublime -- and amplifies them, making for their finest collection to date. And that's saying something.
On record, the Clientele can create whole worlds with their music. From the grainy places of their early singles to the ghostly whisper of The Violet Hour, or from the parting clouds of Strange Geometry to the sun-soaked bliss of God Save the Clientele, the band has been wandering through the same pop mist without ever settling in the same exact spot twice.
And so it is with Bonfires on the Heath. Their finest and most expansive collection to date, and one of the finest pop offerings of 2009, this album takes all their strengths -- haunting and sublime -- and amplifies them into a collection that moves bleary-eyed and dreaming through nights that rise, huge and cool, and swirl around you, leaving you to make sense of the eerie quiet they leave in their wake.
This is an album of observation, even a vision quest of sorts. Everything seems to happen at a distance. Somewhere in the night, kids build bonfires and jump them like jackals. There are voices in the hall on the other side of the door. Alasdair MacLean swears there are "phantoms in the gaps between my bones." And even when he goes out into the world, when he gets dragged through the streets on "Never Anyone But You", he sounds removed from it all. "I can only see you," he pines over and over again, unable to recognize the streets around him, to find ground under his feet.
The whole album has this same sense of floating, of being in the shapeless place between where you've left and where you'll get to. Even the sharp snap and crunchy guitars of "Sketch" is a brief respite from the fever dream, and that too is populated by echoing whispers. It's not all melancholy wandering, though. "I Wonder Who We Are" and "Share the Night" are downright danceable pop gems. But even these -- the former with its bright horns and chorus of joyful voices, the latter with its disco-shuffle and sweat -- don't rise out of the mist so much as make that mist churn. Where much of the album finds this hypnotizing world happening around the players, in these moments they whip up their own swirl, and sound powerful doing it. Wandering is not always, as it turns out, about losing hope. It can be about reclaiming it too.
And you feel that hope even as you feel the light patter of rain on "Jennifer & Julia", or as you feel dead leaves rustle across the way on "Harvest Time". Mel Draisey's work on piano and violin deserves a lot of credit for how thick and brilliant the texture is on these songs, how complete this haunting world ends up sounding. "Tonight", the song set deepest in the dark night's fog, finds her moving gingerly over the piano's keys, while her violin work on "Never Anyone But You" braces MacLean's vocals, and makes the whole song surge with yearning.
Playing off his band's subtle intricacies, MacLean himself shines once again. As always, his voice sounds as if he's spilling deep secrets. But its the bird-bone hollow guitar notes on the title track, or the light layers of acoustic guitar on "I Know I'll See Your Face" that show MacLean as a unique and brilliant guitar player on top of everything else. As the album closes with "Walking in the Park," MacLean claims, over the gentle plink of Draisley's piano, "I don't know what more I can say." He leaves it at that, which somehow feels like more than enough.
The Clientele, and we, emerge from Bonfires on the Heath still absorbing all we've taken in. The voices, the fires, the cool night air, that stillness coming on again. It all means something. Maybe something wordless will settle somewhere in us to be carried into the coming day. Or maybe we'll put words to this feeling later, or dive into the album again to see if it's hidden somewhere in the haze. The true success of this album, of this new piece of the Clientele world, is how that second trip won't feel exactly like the first one. It might even be completely different.