“In the dark, you’re never gone,” sings Clinic frontman Ade Blackburn on the opening track of his band’s new record, Bubblegum. The line could sum up Clinic’s status at the almost 15-year mark of the Liverpool group’s career. They’ve built up a clearly devoted fanbase around their organ-drenched updates on 1960s psychedelic pop, but mainstream success has largely eluded them. In some ways, they’re like a UK version of Austin’s Spoon — a band who constructs songs on the backbone of tried-and-true rock ‘n’ roll tropes, always sounding tight and lively, prepossessed of a signature sound but never tired or formulaic. However, where Spoon has made it to the arena scene, Clinic’s still hitting midsized clubs, at least stateside.
Bubblegum has a good a chance as any of the band’s discography at changing that. It’s another successful record of catchy, slightly stoned songs. If it doesn’t really push Clinic’s sound forward dramatically, it continues to refine that sound to a point (not a razor sharp point like Britt Daniel’s band, but more of a pleasant, nicely rounded edge). That opening song, lead single “I’m Aware”, shows the band in such comfortable form. Gentle “ooh-ooh” background harmonies support washes of reverb and wah-ed guitar to blissed out effect. There may have been some other British pop groups hailing from Liverpool at some point that made music with a similar vibe, but the wonderful haze of “I’m Aware” makes it hard to poke your head through the clouds to think about anything else.
The album’s title track continues in the same vein, adding Clinic’s beloved organ and some nicely punchy lead guitar, distorted to the point where it almost sounds like bursts of fanfare. Carl Turney’s backbeat keeps things uptempo, so “Bubblegum” never becomes twee or recedes too far in the background. Chillwave, take note. By the time “Baby” kicks in with the third wah pedal in a row, one knows for sure that Clinic’s chosen the sleepier side of garage rock in which to indulge this time around. Again, it’s not a move forward or backward, really, but rather it seems like a naturally lateral move. Blackburn’s croon glides so effortlessly along with the instrumentation that one never thinks to question the direction, here.
“Lion Tamer’s” distorted vocals and percussive drive — the drums feature toms here! — seem jarring in the context of the album, and the song offers a nice boost in energy. The same holds true for the bouncing “Evelyn” later on. Otherwise, Bubblegum goes down smoothly throughout. “Linda” is relaxed even for this album, as Blackburn describes the titular heroine “high as a kite” who has “all you see there to take”. “Radiostory” moves at a similar pace, but Blackburn shakes things up by offering a spoken word approach, telling an engaging narrative about a couple’s initial meeting. His eye for detail proves quite keen: “Her fingers deftly undoing the button on his borrowed shirt / No noise except for the buzz of the overhead light and their breathing.” The song is intoxicating in a different way than the rest of the album’s easy beauty, as if the boys in Arab Strap had suddenly cheered up and found love.
If you’re not onboard by the time “Radiostory” comes through the speakers, the rest of Bubblegum likely won’t change your mind. The album continues apace in its subtle appeal. The voiceless “Un Astronauta En Cielo” brings a drum machine and IDM keys to an ethereal interlude, and “Orangutan” finishes the album by moving into the 1970s with its fuzzed out guitar lick. Blackburn and Clinic know what they’re doing by now, and they do it well. It’s nice to have some consistency in the world, and if Clinic doesn’t rewrite their songbook with each album, that’s all right. Bubblegum will lull away your complaints.