Release Date: Oct 6, 2009
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Indie, Rock
On record, the Clientele can create whole worlds with their music. From the grainy places of their early singles to the ghostly whisper of The Violet Hour, or from the parting clouds of Strange Geometry to the sun-soaked bliss of God Save the Clientele, the band has been wandering through the same pop mist without ever settling in the same exact spot twice. And so it is with Bonfires on the Heath.
At its core, the Clientele's music has always been all about evanescence -- and we're not talking about that awful goth-emo-whatever band. There's a sense of something slipping away, something you barely get a glimpse of before it swoops out of sight. Sometimes it's singer-songwriter Alasdair MacLean's aching sense of nostalgia for lost youth, sometimes the memories of romances left behind; both things play into his lyrical outlook.
Autumnal surveyors of disappearing Middle England add another chapter to yellow-paged diary “Late October, sunlight in the wood / Nothing here quite moves the way it should,” sings Clientele frontman Alasdair MacLean in characteristically breathy fashion on the title track of his quartet’s sixth LP, the strictly-tea-and-tweed Bonfires on the Heath. For those who cherished the late, great Go-Betweens, Galaxie 500 and The Zombies, take heart—here is your new favorite album, filled to bursting with shivering tremolo guitars, surrealist poetry and the sort of melodies that made the kids’ knees buckle whenever “Time of the Season” graced the airwaves. Sure, this sepia-toned world barely exists today outside the boundaries of Oxford’s Botanic Garden, the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society or the pages of Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, but it’s a romantic, tantalizing place all the same, one that revels in its sadness and glorifies the antiquity of its contours.
For a record that commences with such pep and glides along effortlessly on the vibrant, jingle-jangle clarity of its instrumentation, Bonfires on the Heath is filled with words of uncertainty. Spirits, traces and questions permeate Alasdair MacLean’s autumnal lyrics, always delivered in a breathy, dreamtime voice. The music’s sharp focus, peppered with gallantly chirping Forever Changes brass and sometimes slipping into a Floyd-like coast of silvery slide guitar, is the solid ground on which ghosts tread.
In melody and lyric, the Clientele's fifth album is achingly evocative of the burnished autumnal landscapes that have so recently disappeared in torrents of rain. Its 12 songs feel similarly fragile and impermanent; many meander along so unobtrusively that you could tune them out without realising it. Concentrate, however, and it emerges that ghostliness and evanescence are among frontman Alasdair MacLean's chief preoccupations.
It might seem like rather a grand statement for a band who have developed their sound in such an understated and gradual way as The Clientele have, but this feels very much like the album we've been waiting for them to make. The London-based four-piece have always had a way with dreamily melancholic pop and to many ears Bonfires On the Heath will sound much like all their previous offerings, the only notable difference between it and the earlier efforts being the additional presence of keyboardist/violinist Mel Draisey and the odd flourish of brass or Spanish guitar. However, it is The Clientele's ability to completely envelop the listener in a mindset/a mood/a landscape/a moment for an album's length which makes it all too easy to describe them as "atmospheric" and they've never done that so effectively as they do here.
Who could have guessed, as the first decade of the new millennium came on like a clean slate, that the Clientele would have a multi-album career in them? A follow-up to the band's 2000 singles collection, Suburban Light-- so ingratiating and familiar it felt like the distillation of some heartsick indie-pop ideal-- seemed less impossible than superfluous. When something feels perfect, you don't necessarily want want xeroxes, however much you may think you want more in your life. Yet here we are, as the first decade of the new millennium slumps to an ignoble close, with the fourth Clientele album.
When Alasdair MacLean publicly considered the demise of The Clientele, it led to speculation about the exact reason behind it. Sure, it's certainly possible to sugarcoat a slew of 60’s inspired material for over ten years, but the confidence inherent in the Clientele's compositions was what positioned them apart from any rival pop band that even considered to take their musical direction to such levels of tranquility. Instead of masquerading the spirit of Davy Jones or Arthur Lee, The Clientele had merged both - taking the challenge of writing an attractive pop tune with some serious strokes of introspection.
The Clientele's fourth album continues the English band's tradition of sculpting breathy, reverb-drenched, Zombies-informed psych pop that aches with melancholy without ever approaching dreariness. And they do it better here than last time around, incorporating more expansive instrumentation (horns, sitar, jazzy guitar rhythms) and an overall spookier sonic palette. [rssbreak] A few tunes - Sketch and Share The Night - attempt upbeat disco rock, and it's not pretty, although opening track I Wonder Who We Are gets the balance right.
The image of fires burning on clear expanses of useless and barren land was the first association I had when I heard the title to The Clientele’s new album, Bonfires on the Heath. While decidedly within bandleader and songwriter Alasdair MacLean’s well-established artistic vocabulary of scene-setting nature snapshots, elemental yet distanced physicality, and pastoral English life, it rings with a feeling more desolate than the wistful melancholy we’ve come to expect from these guys (and gal). Combine this image with the Briticism “one’s native heath”, which refers to a person’s place of birth and childhood, and we’re tipped off that this affair might be more bitter than sweet.