It is strange to encounter the songs of the House of Love again. More than 25 years have passed since the band released their first record, and hearing this live album (recorded in November 2013 in their hometown of London) feels like unwrapping ancient, precious and slightly poisoned souvenirs. Live at the Lexington 13.11.13 starts with a warning, a 1988 song that frontman Guy Chadwick delivers in his characteristically nonchalant, tongue-in-cheek tone: “Destroy the heart she said / Better soon we will be quite dead.” This opening song is not here by chance. Rather, it weighs down the whole album, anticipating the atmosphere of the entire gig. It is even more obvious today than it was before: The House of Love endlessly recall the passing of time, the fast undoing of dreams, of youth. Guy Chadwick does not really remind me of any other pop stars. If anything, he brings to my mind visions of two Renaissance poets, Du Bellay and Ronsard, and their quick, thorny epigrams: everything dies (something that the House of Love’s 2005 comeback album — Days Run Away — made quite explicit). It seems that Guy Chadwick knows that nothing matters, especially not sweet, guitar pop songs. Still he also knows that songs may represent one of the most priceless things on earth.
Chadwick once declared that the band “had stated everything on the first album” (Creation Records, 1988), yet the House of Love carried on recording for Fontana until their split in 1993. They reformed in the mid-2000s. Somehow they could not stop, and have often obsessively tried to recapture the miracle of their beginnings. Clear, shimmering electric guitars and tormented, joyfully love-worn lyrics: the band’s influences are difficult to trace. One might hear a mixture of cold British post-punk combined with the texture of 1960s American West Coast psychedelia — Jefferson Airplane, the Byrds, etc. Empty chords are left to echo, sometimes Chadwick talks rather than sings (“Lost in the Blues”, “A Baby Got Back on Its Feet”), which conjures up foggy memories of the Velvet Underground. But mostly it is impossible to detect the influences of the band, just as it is impossible to know who they influenced. The House of Love run in beautiful, untouchable circles: a group sui generis.
Guy Chadwick and Terry Bickers are the two remaining members of the original line-up, but the dynamics feel the same, and the band play the songs with the same desperate eagerness as before. The passing of years adds a layer of drama and gravity to them though: whatever line originally seemed quite inconsequent has now taken on its full power. The singer’s voice has lost some of its iridescent lightness: it is lower, heavier, and ever so slightly lazier now. On the classic “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” Terry Bickers sings as well, weaving a safety net around Chadwick’s voice, to prevent it from disintegrating. Sometimes the band gets carried away — the end of “Purple Killer Rose” sounds dangerously like a Led Zeppelin cover — this sudden heaviness surprises, slightly undermining the delicate guitar constructions of the band. But these moments of shortcomings and hesitations reinforce rather than impede the emotional resonance of the album.
Live at the Lexington 13.11.13 documents a return and pulverizes a myth. I will no longer think of the House of Love as a cult band (as I still sometimes think of Felt or the La’s); I will no longer remember Chadwick’s sternly determined air, locked in smooth, black and white photographs. This album proves that the band is terribly alive. But it shows at the same time how mortal they are. Cherry Red released the CD with a DVD of the gig: the aging of the band and its public become inevitably apparent. Yet, for all the years, the House of Love have kept their strange poignancy and juvenile directness. The audience clap and scream (the gig was recorded on the second night of their sold-out London gigs): something special is still happening.
The band play all the jangly, bittersweet classics (“Christine”, “Shine On”), all the broken beatdown ballads (“The Beatles and the Stones”, “Touch Me”), as well as some new material. This record (the first official live album of the band) illuminates the old House of Love. The songs emerge anew, barren of the thick, quasi-glittering 1990s production of the original records. In the end, early fans will recognize the intact spirit that first animated the band, but new listeners will not feel alienated. This mosaic of old and new songs is not nostalgic. It simply summons the sweet, gloriously seasick whisper of today: it speaks of all that which passes, all that which comes back. Pop music in a broken shell.