Tindersticks: The Waiting Room
The world's most cinematic band has invited a collection of film directors to interpret their latest record, to stunning effect.
The adventurous collective known as Tindersticks enters their 25th year with perhaps their most adventurous project yet, a ninth studio album, The Waiting Room, which they have released in tandem with a collection of short films inspired by the record's songs. In collaboration with the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival and la Blogotheque The Waiting Room Film Project is an organic extension of the album.
Tindersticks have a long and ongoing relationship with the prominent French director Claire Denis, whose debut Chocolat won the Palme d'or at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. Constellation collected the six scores the band composed for her films in a five-cd box in 2011, Claire Denis Film Scores: 1996-2009. Ms. Denis contributes a short film here, along with six other directors as well as lead singer Stuart A. Staples and his wife, the noted painter and visual artist, Suzanne Osborne.
The album, The Waiting Room, itself is notable for a number of reasons. First, it finds the second iteration of the band -- Staples, David Boulter, Neil Fraser, Dan McKinna, and Earl Harvin -- brimming with the confidence of having established themselves independently from their first version, following the artistic achievement of Ypres (2014) their first work commissioned for an installation as opposed to a film score and built upon the solid foundations of their previous albums The Something Rain (2012) and Falling Down a Mountain (2010). This is a band freed from the need to look back. Which is not to say that The Waiting Room does not contain familiar and beloved elements of the band's sonic history.
"How He Entered" offers a classic spoken-word recitation by Staples over a bachelor-pad jazz arrangement, a standard feature of any Tindersticks record and this one possibly the most effective since their second album's "My Sister". Another necessary component of a Tindersticks record is the downbeat duet, and Staples offers two here, both high points for the band. The album's single "We Are Dreamers!" features Jehnny Beth of Savages in a combative, shared plea of "This is not us / We are dreamers!" in the face of a perpetually dishonest or disinterested world. Most poignantly, the band resurrects "Hey Lucinda", a song they recorded with Lhasa de Sela over ten years ago. Shelved in the aftermath of her too-early death, succumbing to breast cancer, Staples has seen the song through to its finish, and it is the album's masterpiece. In retrospect, this plea to come out drinking because "our time is running out" is all the more poignant, its simple instrumental accompaniment growing with the argument and de Sela's admission that "I only dance to remember how dancing used to feel" embedding the song with a sense of twilight.
The Waiting Room also demonstrates that Tindersticks continue to grow and experiment sonically, absorbing new elements into their distinctive sound, such as the Afrobeat groove upon which "Help Yourself" is built, its opening guitars, percussion, and horns welcoming listeners in like a Fela Kuti jam. And no previous Tindersticks album has featured the kind of electronica-like base and organ interplay of "Were We One Lovers". Clocking in at just under fifty minutes, this is the most cohesive and engaging set the band has created. The lessons of their cinematic compositions have served the band well.
The films are, as the band has explained, inspired by the songs. Inspired is the key word, as none of the films attempt to convey the lyrical content in any kind of narrative structure, at least not directly. And this is appropriate to their subject, for the standard Tindersticks song does not present itself as a physical narrative so much as a psychological one, building not towards an active climax but rather a sense of shifting mood or growing awareness. If there were only one thing to separate these from standard "music videos" it would be that fact. But there is plenty more. The short films, collectively, seek to capture the mood of the songs, each in its own way, and this proves the most effective means of amplifying their meaning and, collectively, even providing a collective interpretation of the album as a whole.
Osborne and Staples set the tone for the collection with their film that accompanies "Follow Me", an unmoving camera focused upon a gray door in a gray wall. The "action" is simply a knife-shaped blade of sunlight slowly growing to resemble an eye, but then revealing itself as the projection of a window frame covered by diaphanous curtains that let most of the light through but block just enough to create an indistinct pattern of shadow amidst the light. This is our introduction to The Waiting Room, our eye on the closed door, our imagination trying to make sense of the unknown shadows that brought us there. And aren't waiting room doors always closed?
Christoph Girardet's film for "Second Chance Man" offers as close to a narrative as is found in this collection, though, like a dream, the viewer is forced to construct a narrative out of disjointed fragments of images, some in black and white, others in faded Kodachrome. In one scene, balloons float into the air like the multi-colored beads of a medicine capsule broken open. The dominant theme of this film, like so many others in this collection, is travel, perpetual movement, mostly via the vehicles that dominate our landscapes. Though this one ends with a crash at seaside, we are instantly transported back into the driver's seat in Pierre Vinour's film for "Were We Once Lovers?" a non-ceasing loop of urban traffic, sped up like a twisted calliope ducking under bridges and through tunnels with stomach-churning speed, the reflected lights on the tunnel walls enhancing the feeling of being submerged under water. "How can I care when it's the caring that's killing me?" Staples sings, and suddenly the tunnel has, indeed, deposited us under water, as Staples' words become the distorted blurps and glubs of a drowning man.
Claire Denis' "Help Yourself" follows French actor Alex Descas through a crowded train terminal. The camera repeatedly breaks away from the persistent motion of the masses to rest upon Descas' face, then foregrounds him moving among them, seeming to emphasize his blackness among the overwhelming whiteness of the crowd and amplifying this sense of otherness by having him move counter to the traffic flow, constantly jostled among oncoming bodies. If there is a common message about travel and our transportation technologies among these films, it is overwhelmingly focused upon a sense of dehumanization and displacement. The people of the terminal buzz about following the same kind of mindless patterned pathways of highway traffic. All have direction but all are lost.
Rosie Pedlow and Joe King's "Hey Lucinda" slows down the cacophonic images of the previous films, offering instead static visions of fading seaside attractions. The film adds another layer of artifice to the building mood with its glowering Funland attractions and a Tudor bar with a front so false as to be an ironic statement upon itself. The action of this film is not the sparse clumps of tourists walking by but the stagnant decay of the place itself, so superfluously active yet dying by degree. Staples' "This Fear of Emptiness" could be the vision of a child in the backseat of a car, returning home from the holiday spent at this Funland, the rain spattered window and the distorted gray images of the passing countryside ultimately more interesting and alive than anything experienced in the garish light of the false and enforced playground left behind.
Gregorio Graziosi's "How He Entered" matches the reminiscent narrative of Staples' spoken-word song with archival wedding footage that emphasizes the theme of displacement that has grown through the previous films. Listening to the memories Staples speak-sings, the film turns us into displaced voyeurs, seeing events but divorced from their meaning. We are viewers but we are not a part of what we are viewing. Displacement is amplified in Staples' "The Waiting Room" as we watch a nude figure floating in the distorted light of a swimming pool while he sings "Don't let me suffer" over a whispery organ progression. Like the figure in the pool, we float over another amusement park scene in David Reeve's film for the brief instrumental "Planting Holes", another exercise in being apart from something we are a part of.
Gabraz and Sara Nao Tem Nome's "We Are Dreamers!" offers, arguably, the most active of the films. The actress walks amidst a barren landscape, covered in dirt herself, carrying a shovel, while around her huge earth-moving machines threaten as they gouge the land. Is she the dreamer amidst the uncaring masses, the lone human voice among machines? Finally, as if to amplify the frustrations of the doomed dreamer, Osborne and Staples film for the album's final song "Like Only Lovers Can" places viewers in a room filled with stuffed birds, our view of them complicated by superimposed images of the sky and clouds. The futility of dreams and dreamers in this world could not be clearer.
One potential question and answer from all of this would follow: What is the waiting room and what are we waiting for? The answer, of course, would be that this very world is the waiting room, and we are all waiting for death. But I think that's too simple, and the films are too beautiful and thoughtful for that. We are, indeed, all living in a waiting room; however, I think the reason that these songs and their related films all point to images of displacement, disempowerment, and dehumanization in the face of the world that we have created is to serve as a warning. This is not a collective work of art that embraces hopelessness; rather, it is one that embraces life. We are waiting for life, not death. The door to the waiting room will open onto life, Staples, and Tindersticks, and their collected film directors seem to be saying, when we let go of those things that dehumanize us. The waiting room is our collective, dissociative technologies and our blind habits that lead us to cling to our stubbornly small ways of thinking and seeing. When we leave these behind, then we will truly be alive.