Over 30 years down the line, Television Personalities are content to shamble along in the shadow of their sonic progeny and their own superior past efforts.
Television Personalities are old hands at infusing punk spirit into pop bliss, having been shambling about with their hooky wares even before “indie pop” was conceptualized as a genre. A Memory Is Better Than Nothing is the group’s third album since maestro Dan Treacy resurrected the band following a tumultuous period involving his own dalliances with drug addiction and jail time. Unlike other resurrected ensembles from the post-punk era, Treacy doesn’t appear all that interested here in asserting a legacy for his group. Instead, his goal these days appears to be rather modest: craft a batch of sing-a-long pop tunes as a purpose in of itself. The result is a rather average release that not only makes no effort to even reach the heights of past Personalities gems such as “Look Back in Anger”, but suffers from some major fundamental problems.
On the surface, A Memory Is Better Than Nothing seems like a simple enough proposition. Treacy attempts to invoke the inspired amateurism that has long been integral to the DIY spirit of indiedom, while also taking advantage of the experience that comes with making music for a living for over three decades. When the title track kicks off the album, this synthesis seems an almost effortless goal: opening with rippling drums and twinkly keyboard melodies that give way to a simplistically hooky chorus, “A Memory Is Better Than Nothing” stands out as the most immediately likable cut on the record.
However, the rest of the album is hampered by the gap between Treacy’s lush chamber pop song arrangements and the limits of his own singing voice. Throughout the album, Tracy creates these relaxed, pastoral pop songs layered with horns, organs, and acoustic guitars, often recalling the more refined, less-blokeish songsmiths of Britpop, occasionally augmented with more abrasive guitar textures. Aside from dull moments like the closer “You Free My Spirit”, it’s all quaintly tuneful -- and then Treacy opens his mouth. Wheezy and audibly aged, Treacy’s untutored singing is frankly grating most of the time. Low-key ballads like “If You Don’t Want Me” and “Come Back to Bed” come across best because their stripped down sound coupled with Tracy's sad-sack lyrics allow the singer's vocal limitations to signify emotional vulnerability in a very effecting manner. Nonetheless, his voice wears out its welcome pretty quickly, reaching a meta level of obnoxiousness on “My New Tattoo”, wherein the over-the hill protagonist keens merrily off-key about going out to get some new ink. Additionally, Treacy's attempts to stretch his vocal abilities don't fare well at all. His stab at a high-pitch whisper makes “Funny He Never Married” unintentionally sound like something from Anal Cunt’s hilarious stylistic about-face Picnic of Love.
At least Treacy is having fun the entire time. Even on the more glum numbers, Treacy gives the impression that he finds immense joy crafting and performing these songs. It’s like with any old man’s hobby -- there’s a sense of satisfaction that accompanies the process of creation, be it anything from clock-making to toying with model trains. The downside of this is that he’s ultimately making music just for himself. His new songs aren’t meant to stand toe-to-toe with the Camera Obscuras and Belle & Sebastians of the world, and consequently will disappoint those who want more than gleeful amateurism.
There are a number of bright spots on A Memory Is Better Than Nothing: the Super Furry Animals-esque vocal hooks in “She My Yoko”, a duet with Johanna Lundström on “A Good Anarchist", and the aforementioned title track, to name a few. On a larger scale, however, the album doesn’t have much to offer. It’s the aural expression of an old man playing with his toys, and while that’s satisfactory for Dan Treacy, it’s not going to cut it when compared to the invigorating pop gems Television Personalities have produced before.