The Scottish pop classicists return with their first album in five years. Have they learned any new tricks?
By now, there’s a ho-hum attitude surrounding a new Teenage Fanclub record. This despite the fact they’ve only released a couple studio albums over the last decade.
Part of that is the band’s fault. They refuse to cultivate any sort of public image whatsoever. Maybe that’s because back when they did have an image, in their early days 20 years ago, it was usually over-simplified and misconstrued. Teenage Fanclub were a Big Star tribute band that played originals. They were slackers. They were a sort of British response to grunge. The truth was they drew from a variety of influences on both sides of the Atlantic, Big Star being one of them. They were sharp and talented. Their music only sounded slack because they usually preferred a lax midtempo to the explicit Rawk of the day. They shared a label, Geffen, with Nirvana, and Kurt Cobain was a fan.
To some extent, you have to admire Teenage Fanclub’s refusal to define themselves by any other method than their music. There’s no passive-aggressive “look at us and how much we hate the media and its exploitation” sentiment. But band is so transparent that many critics and would-be fans simply look through them. Over time, the vacuum has been filled with a slate of stock phrases. Consistent. Power-pop. Not as good as Bandwagonesque (1991). Not as good as Grand Prix (1995). Beach Boys. Beatles. Big Star. Of course, behind the clichés is some truth. But Teenage Fanclub deserve more than that, and if there were every any question about it, Shadows is the answer and then some.
Shadows completes a remarkable transformation. While no one was looking, Teenage Fanclub went from being rude, laddish pop malcontents with a wicked ironic streak, to subtle, reflective, utterly sincere singer-songwriters. Starting with 1997’s Songs From Northern Britain, the delinquent bursts of guitar noise and song titles like “Alcoholiday” and “Neil Jung” disappeared. The music became more reflective and sophisticated, too, with a folk influence added to the classic guitar pop aesthetic. With Shadows, the sound of the grown-up Teenage Fanclub comes to full fruition. It’s joyful, but also very thoughtful, carefree and yet aware of its surroundings. It’s about as mature as an album from a group whose nickname is The Fannies could be.
Just don’t call it dull. Songwriters Norman Blake, Raymond McGinley, and Gerard Love have come up with a rarity. Shadows offers plenty of melody and hooks up front, but also demands to be played again and again, revealing something new to like just about every time. You’ll hear the connection between Blake’s singsong “Baby Lee” and vintage XTC, for example. You’ll be touched by the atmospheric, weepy lap steel that bathes Love’s “Sweet Days Waiting”. You’ll notice the lyrics are really good, too. Teenage Fanclub, well into middle-age, approach love, time, and loss with a hard-won acceptance that never fades into cliché. “When I light a fire underneath what I was / I won’t feel sad, only warmed by the loss”, McGinley sings on “The Fall”, expressing in a single couplet what a dozen indie filmmakers have spent careers trying to convey.
There aren’t many loud guitars on Shadows, but with a title like that, what would you expect? It’s not dreampop, but it is dreamy. Blake’s wistful “Dark Clouds” eschews guitars altogether, replacing them with a simple, elegant piano. But you’ll also find plenty of songs to crank up the volume to. Love’s “Sometimes I Don’t Need to Believe in Anything” takes a breezy verse to a string-aided liftoff of a chorus, refusing to be crushed by the weight of its title. His “Shock and Awe” is an exuberant anthem that avoids any pitfalls its title might suggest. In a combo that marks Shadows’ high point, it’s followed by Blake’s folk-rock “When I Still Have Thee”. Just try listening to this song without feeling your mood lighten and your spirit lift. If it doesn’t happen, you just might not have a soul.
And that’s a fitting summary for just what a great album Shadows is. A decade ago, a Teenage Fanclub song with “thee” in the title would have been considered a joke. Now it’s a triumph. As for downside, the low end of the mix is a little thin, and Francis Macdonald’s drumming is sometimes too punchy for the material. But that’s not enough to get in the way of pop that’s so pure, so loving and lovely, there’s nothing ho-hum about it at all.