After 20 years and 11 albums, the Charlatans remain a strangely appealing proposition. Who knew it would take space rock to prove it?
Who suspected the Charlatans would be the one "Madchester" band that would last for 20 years? Their resilience has gained them no small amount of respect. What's often overlooked, though, is that their music has maintained a remarkably consistent level of quality. Some of their albums have been better than others, but only one, Simpatico!, was a genuine dud. Plus, their run of singles would stand up to that of any other British band of the era. For some reason, though, the Charlatans have never really been considered one of the "major" British rock bands. They don't write straight-up love songs and they're not pretentious. Maybe that has something to do with it. Anyhow, the Charlatans have reached the point where they can release whatever they please. At the very least, the fan base will buy it, and the critics and the public will say something about longevity, then brush it aside.
Now, though, it's becoming apparent that the Charlatans once again demand something more than the usual treatment. No one loves a comeback more than the British music press, and the Charlatans may be due. 2008's You Cross My Path was an unexpected career high point. And, while it's not as immediately appealing, Who We Touch marks another bold, confident move, one which pays off much more often than you might expect.
Band leader Tim Burgess has always been a genuine music enthusiast. One has to look only as far as the myriad styles and sounds the Charlatans have tried out throughout their career. You Cross My Path went heavy on 1980s post-punk, and from the Joy Division riff on the hard-charging opener "Love Is Ending", you might think the band was maintaining that focus on Who We Touch. But the best term with which to describe Who We Touch is "sprawling". Burgess has been into fringe-dwellers of the last few decades, bands such as space-rockers Hawkwind, krautrockers Can, punk extremists Crass, and techno-industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle. Thus, Tony Rogers' Hammond organ sounds more spooky than groovy on the tense "Sincerity", which alternates a droning rhythm with group shouting and a chilling, zombie-like chorus. On "Oh!", a lilting verse, featuring Burgess' most beautiful, delicate vocal to date, gives way to an ominous chorus. Then, the whole song breaks for a waltz-time, kalliope-type interlude, with Burgess yelling, "We live in fear, oh boy we live in fear". So far, so Syd Barrett.
With the album's last couple tracks, though, the Charlatans' tether to the corporeal world becomes ever so thin. The gauzy, rhythmless "You Can Swim" has been compared to Brian Eno, but a more accurate reference point seems to be the Brian Wilson of "'Til I Die". Then, on hidden track "I Sing the Body Electric", former Crass member Penny Rimbaud shows up to do some spoken word in a melodramatic Vincent Price-style, saying things like, "In space, we want to know not where we are". Burgess recently described this collaboration as a career high, so it must not be a parody. But you could be forgiven for thinking so.
What's impressive about Who We Touch is how in light of all this the Charlatans haven't lost their characteristic swagger or their way with a tune. The soulful "My Foolish Pride" is the band's most irresistible, triumphant pop moment since "North Country Boy" 15 years ago, even if its bridge is more than a little similar to the Human League's "Open Your Heart". "Your Pure Soul" mixes the right amounts of introspection and tension, and it's lush and gorgeous. "When I Wonder" is power pop that twists and turns without losing your interest. In perhaps the album's real strangest moment, the Charlatans deliver in "Trust in Desire" a straight-up arena-sized anthem. Apparently, you can add U2 and Doves to that list of influences.
Yes, at times the songwriting flags a bit, as on a couple occasions when repeating the song title takes the place of an actual chorus. Burgess' lyrics have always been opaque, and this batch is a characteristically mixed bag. Has it really taken him 11 albums to come up with the line "Make love / Not war"? Musically, however, the band is as powerful as ever. The prog-rock focus and spaced-out arrangements give the formidable rhythm section a welcome chance to flex its muscle. Producer Youth, the Killing Joke bassist, has helmed experimental-type albums from Crowded House and Paul McCartney. Here, he adds strings and keyboards for a "big" feel, then tempers it with a rattling low end that really does sound like something from vintage prog.
The Charlatans have never been afraid to fail, which makes it all the more pleasant when they succeed. Who We Touch isn't exactly an easy album to sink into, but it gets less weedy with each listen. You'll be surprised by how many of these songs get stuck in your head. Longevity gets you to the Greatest Hits Tour. Inspiration gets you farther, and the Charlatans still have it.