The terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena on 22 May, killing 23 adults and children (including the bomber), was unspeakably evil. But the response of the city of Manchester and its people — united, resilient, unwavering — was awe-inspiring. It also drew you back (and made you want to revisit for reassurance) to the city’s wonderful musical history: the gleaming, glorious rush of the Smiths; the mesmerizing hypnotism of New Order; the knowing swagger of the Stone Roses.
Kindred souls to these great bands are those semi-sons of Manchester, the Charlatans. I say “semi-sons” because, although the band have regularly been associated with the Madchester sound of the Roses and the Happy Mondays, most of the band came from the West Midlands — only to relocate to the hometown (Northwich) of their lead singer, Tim Burgess, just outside the Manchester metropolitan area, before they broke big. But if the Charlatans didn’t meet the precise geographical template, they matched the mold in sound, vision and, above all, in their representation of the city’s resolute spirit.
For the Charlatans, the 50th anniversary of the summer of love is apposite: their first hit, “The Only One I Know”, had a tight claustrophobia and urgent pace that recalled the psychedelic garage rumble of West Coast bands such as the Electric Prunes. But, much more than that, in 2017 one could write a treatise about the rollercoaster ride of the Charlatans and (in Chumbawumba style) how they “get knocked down and get back up again”. In the 1990s, the band survived the death of their keyboard player, Rob Collins, and then the passing of drummer, Jon Brookes, in 2013. Brookes’s death subsequently seemed to serve as a clarion call for one of the best albums of their entire storied career, the superb Modern Nature, in 2015.
Which brings us to Modern Nature’s follow-up, Different Days. The simple assessment over a couple of listens is that Different Days is Modern Nature Part 2. Let’s run the checklist: the Burgess happy/sad voice in fine fettle (tick); the warm groove of Tony Rogers’ keyboards (tick); the mix of euphoria and sad reminiscence on the lyrics (tick). These characteristics that Charlatans’ fans love are all present and correct.
However, where the difference may lie is in the overall quality of the songs on the respective albums. Certainly, some of the tracks on Different Days would have nestled comfortably in Modern Nature’s running order. “Plastic Machinery” enters on a peerless clutch segue from the spoken word “Future Tense”, locks down a groove to a rhapsody for a life of liberty and individualism, and morphs into a euphoric loop of a chorus whose end still comes too quickly. In the old world, it would have been a banger of a single. Right now, just allow it to soundtrack your summer. “Let’s Go Together” is warm and sparkly, and inhabits a channel no less perfectly fused of drum, bass, and organ. The closer “Spinning Out” finishes on a pleasing combination of Pet Sounds-like backing vocals (with a guest appearance from Paul Weller), chilled-out ambience and some nice flourishes from guitarist Mark Collins.
But these tracks are exceptions rather than the rule. The trick that “Modern Nature” managed to pull off was to combine exhilaration and melancholy but still leave the listener on an up. Its successor is altogether more subdued. It’s as if the downs of the last few years have had more time to sink in. And the songs are generally of a lesser caliber and a tad mundane in places.
It’s June 2017, and there will be many worse albums to accompany your summer than the Charlatans’ Different Days. Above all, uneven though the collection of songs may be, the spirit of this life-force of a band will always uplift and restore — in an unsettling world (to put it mildly), we need that.