Music

Review: ‘Music for the Age of Miracles’, The Clientele

Merge Records

‘Like a silver ring thrown into the flood of my heart / With the moon high above the motorway / I have searched for all your fragrance in the silent dark / Is that okay?’ Picturesque and breathlessly romantic, the lyrical climax to The Clientele’s 2000 single ‘We Could Walk Together’ sums up The Clientele’s charm. The surrealism of that Bousquet quote; Alasdair MacLean’s lo-fi vocal, simultaneously intimate and faraway in the manner of a British Sufjan Stevens; the downpour of jangly guitars that descend moodily in the background. Most of all, it shows The Clientele’s inimitable grasp of the aesthetic. Over their twenty years making music, The Clientele’s gently psychedelic touch has created idylls out of city streets, composed ballet out of falling raindrops (Alasdair MacLean’s pluviophilia defines much of the band’s previous output) and painted Caravaggio out of the transition from day to night.

Early recordings made The Clientele into cult heroes for lonely twenty-somethings, however never matching the success (or neuroticism for that matter) of their melancholic litterateur peers Radiohead, Galaxie 500, or The Smiths before them. By the time they released their autumnal 2010 album ‘Bonfires on The Heath’, it seemed that the spark was fading and trio were about ready to pack it in – The soothing reflections on nature had become cloyingly familiar, and the band’s characteristic apathy had ultimately given rise to an album limited in scope and ambition.

Thus, The Clientele’s first record in seven years was cause for nervous excitement. ‘Evening’s hymn / Conjures the park / And, now out of the dark / In a dream I followed you home’: The new album, ‘Music For The Age of Miracles’ opens with such a quintessentially The Clientele first line that it could almost be parody, accompanied by typically brooding guitar strums. All isn’t as it first appears, though. As the song (‘The Neighbour’) develops, we see that there’s a comfort and grace that is retained even as the band explore new territory. Incorporating choral and orchestral elements, it’s an effervescent foray into chamber-pop – and as MacLean muses ‘How will you ever know the dancer from the dance?’, we as listeners feel ourselves being kindly encouraged to reconsider The Clientele as they enter a new creative era. It’s a welcome breath of fresh air, and seems to have been spurred along by both the changes in MacLean’s life as a new father, and the addition of a new member (Anthony Harmer) to the band, playing the Persian dulcimer (featured prominently on ‘Falling Asleep’).

The new album is restless and self-conscious, as The Clientele toy with their own clichés using new mediums. ‘Everything You See Tonight Is Different From Itself’ is the sparkling jewel of The Clientele’s experimental spirit. It’s as far from the set menu as The Clientele have strayed, beginning with the juddering of a techno drum machine, spliced with a luscious harp line: ‘Nothing here is quite the same / Songbirds singing new refrains / Palpitations on the train and / Static in the grass’ once again feels like a bit of a self-referential nudge-and-a-wink, as the song goes into the anxious refrain: ‘You’re an empty face / In an empty house’. Identity-loss and reinvention are the name of the game, and that tension is exploited to craft songs that are rejuvenating and breathtaking.

‘Music For The Age of Miracles’ is strikingly programmatic as album titles go, and confirms the sense that a new wind is rising for The Clientele. MacLean commented in a recent interview with The 405: ‘It’s a reference to the outbreak of magical thinking that we’ve had in both America and Britain, where people are starting to believe in miracles again. It’s not necessarily critical of that, it’s more a celebration of the irrationality of it.’ That might sound like all too blunt an analysis of our times, but ‘Music For The Age of Miracles’ is filled with subtle reflections on the reliability of memory, reality, and dreams – and how that might play out in the political sphere is implied, but not forced upon us. ‘The Museum of Fog’, a four-minute spoken word song, originally an extract from MacLean’s attempted novel, showcases that indirect mode of enquiry brilliantly. It describes a trippy dreamworld of MacLean’s youth, revisiting his local pub as a teenager and watching an elusive musician ‘The Phantom’ with an Orphic quality, that winds up with the horrified realisation of the layers of illusion of MacLean’s own making: ‘Dazzled by the sudden bright light in the room, my certainty drifted away; had the sounds I’d heard been exactly what I’d thought they were? I was in a difficult, neurotic state and perhaps there were memories welling up that I couldn’t control. I felt suddenly depressed and tired, disgusted with my own numbness’. ‘The Museum of Fog’ gives voice to that anxious search for identity as the world shifts around us, when even those things that seem most secure and permanent (like the memories of a happy childhood) can’t really be trusted.

All in all, ‘Music For The Age of Miracles’ is a pleasing take on changing times, both for The Clientele as a band, and for the western world. It’s startling to see that, for an album with so much to say about getting lost and the instability of memory, ‘Music For The Age of Miracles’ retains the characteristic style, sophistication, and clarity that first created their prophetic legend. The Clientele aren’t rejecting their prior identity in favour of something new. Rather, they’re reframing their old tropes and giving them new life. In MacLean’s words: ‘The festival is over / And the sea is in your eyes / On the promenade / The old Gods are returning’.

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