Back in the ’80s, when asked what he thought of Morrissey and his incessant moping, the Fall’s Mark E. Smith wryly suggested that the Smiths’ infamous miserablist really should uh get out uh and about a bit uh more uh. You can’t help thinking the same about Tindersticks. Throughout the ’90s — on four studio albums of music for imaginary, darkened bedsits and their existentialist occupants — no one did melancholy better than Tindersticks.
Comfortably glum, bittersweet numbers like “Dying Slowly” and “No Man in the World” might suggest that it’s business as usual on Can Our Love…. These two songs are textbook Tindersticks material. Combining rich depth with tremulousness and fragility, Stuart Staples’ haunting, mumbled baritone takes pride of place on these moody, mournful, string-enhanced arrangements.
But while the sound of this new album certainly doesn’t suggest that Staples and friends have been hanging out at the beach, it does hint that they’ve perhaps peered through the cracks in the heavy velvet curtains of their respective abodes and at least squinted at the sunlight and the outside world.
In many places on this new release, the band’s signature strings and brass are imbued with a retro-soul flavour that gives the proceedings a more expansive and even a mildly sunny feel (well . . . in an autumnal kind of way). That’s certainly the case on the throbbing, seven-minute “People Keep Comin’ Around”. In addition to its keyboard smatterings and its head-nodding beat — reminiscent of the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” — this number incorporates ’70s cop-show strings, horns and flutes that thread in and out of the deep, pulsing rhythms.
Tindersticks aren’t a band to rush things. They’ve always taken an unhurried, measured approach to their music, allowing songs to build and fill out almost imperceptibly. Nowhere is this clearer than on “Sweet Release”, where the group’s trademark brooding groove gradually grows to epic proportions. Recalling late-’60s Scott Walker and incorporating thick, fruity Hammond, winding violins, and a sheen of brass, the track envelops you and keeps you mesmerized for its nine minutes. Lesser artists who take their songs to such lengths often err on the side of excess and test the patience of listeners. In this case, however, Tindersticks have crafted an understated, luxuriant masterpiece that ends all too soon.
Nevertheless, the album’s crowning glory is, appropriately enough, its slow-burning, dramatic closer, the seven-and-a-half-minute “Chilitetime”. Here, Tindersticks bring together the melodic structure and beat (albeit slowed down) of Hot Chocolate’s “Emily” and the eerie, metallic-string dissonance of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song”. Staples’ sublime vocals suggest an improbable hybrid of Andrew Eldritch and Ian Curtis, and this particular performance best exemplifies the uniqueness of his breathy style as he creeps up on notes, drawing out each word. Above all, this number underscores the fact that his voice is one of Tindersticks’ most affecting instruments.
Although some of the brighter, more spacious, ’70s-influenced arrangements on Can Our Love… offer fleeting glimpses beyond the traditionally shadowy world of Tindersticks and although Staples does sound moderately hopeful in places, for the most part, the music remains brilliantly gloomy, a soundtrack to the dark night of his soul.
It’s hard to make miserable music. Or, more accurately, it’s hard to make miserable music that has anything but novelty value. One reason is that many who attempt to do melancholy take the short cut and rely on lyrics to convey the mood. Tindersticks translate that emotional register to their lush, somber music and Staples renders it in his inimitable delivery. In linguistic terms it’s never easy to understand what he’s singing, but the feeling is crystal clear.
And although Tindersticks’ sound might be richly gloomy, that’s not to say that they’re horribly earnest. Even in their darkest moments there’s a knowingness to the performance. Like one of their obvious antecedents, Leonard Cohen, Tindersticks are not without (dark) humour. The cover art alone offers one clue to this side of them. Any man who can be photographed sharing a tender moment with an absolutely enormous donkey for the cover of an album called Can Our Love… — as Staples is here — clearly has a healthy sense of irony.