Clinic are a band with a sound, but are they also a band with a shtick?
Call it what you will -- consistency versus predictability, innovation versus identity abandonment: whatever the name, this is the most serious quandary that bands face as they mature. The first album is a serious test for sure, but it's one that, after determining whether a band will be allowed to have a career, mainly exists to divide the faithful from the unbelievers. The second time out, perhaps a band wins new converts, but they are almost always assured at least the initial thrust of eager fans who've been patiently waiting for a follow up to the debut. But the third time, rather than being the charm, is potentially the crusher. If the second album failed to excite, it's unlikely that a disenchanted fan will return. Those who stayed away for numbers one and two are hardly likely to make a third trip out. And by the third album, even those most devoted might be seeking out a change. Album number three is the most telling as to whether a band will be one that lasts or one that fades to dark.
It is with this gravitas that I make sad proclamation: Clinic may indeed be spent. The wonder of Internal Wrangler is hard to deny, hitting listeners unwittingly upside the head with its uniqueness, idiosyncracy, and crackling, punk-aloosa ruckus. Walking With Thee was both more straightforwardly melodic and melancholy, a haunted record which hypnotized anyone who gave it its due but which also took the band's mania toward a sober, more sterilized turn. But Winchester Cathedral is little more than Walking With Thee 2.0 with more songs, sounding like revamps of previous work, but lacking the previous content, energy, or momentum. As a result, Winchester doesn't feel so much like an album as it does like a grab bag comprised of otherwise homeless trinkets. Its content was probably better left on the studio floor, to be unearthed years later in one of those mega-compilations that has 15 versions of the same song, made expressly for die-hards.
What I fear may be the cause of this is that Clinic have finally exhausted their bag of tricks. Whiny jibberish, the wheezing melodica and clarinet, the rushed nuggets that end as soon as you get a grip -- how can enthusiasm be recast into the form, when they seem deadest on creating music that tries, and fails, to spook? Clinic certainly make valiant effort with "Country Mile" by charging in on insistent, menacing beeps, but with the same shape and tone as "Sunlight Bathes Our Room" (from Walking) the track sounds like a slightly more sinister redux of the original. The Halloweenish tenor continues into "Circle of Fifths", which again listens like the aural equivalent of a horror movie sequel. When they slide into slow dirges like "Home", I've not only ceased being afraid -- I've also mostly stopped paying attention.
I'd be lying if I said this was bad music -- but perhaps worse, the bulk of this album fails to make any uniue impression whatsoever. Listening to it makes me... well, it makes me want to take it out and fish out the two Clinic records I already know and like. Like Radiohead on Hail to the Thief, Clinic have moved themselves that much closer to obsolescence by failing to take sufficient enough risk. Or maybe a better comparison are the Raveonettes, who write listenable songs that are virtually indistinguishable from another. Perhaps I've just grown out of Clinic, but I think a more accurate charge is that Clinic have failed to grow.