October 2017

Arts & Letters

Another summer’s night

By Anwen Crawford

© Michael Robert Williams

The intangible beauty of The Clientele’s ‘Music for the Age of Miracles’

On any given suburban street at dusk, when some houses lie empty and the occupants of the rest are lost to their ordinary duties, there is a sound that can be heard, if you listen for it. It’s a kind of exhalation, made by the houses (by people, too, though less completely), the sum of that day’s dust and weather and boredom, though the mood is not one of dissatisfaction but repose. Boredom can bring forth great dreams, after all, and in those moments when the street has lost itself in dreaming there is an imminence, a sense of what you could stumble across if at last the mundane gave way to the wondrous.

I know of only one group of musicians who have captured this evenfall promise in song, not just once but many times, and they are an English band called The Clientele, who pronounce their name in the French way (“Clee-on-tell”), and whose combination of European literary surrealism and English guitar pop has gifted to the world a clutch of beautiful records that the world has mostly ignored. The Clientele’s first album – which was largely a compilation of 7-inch singles – was called Suburban Light (2000), and their new album, their sixth, is called Music for the Age of Miracles. Consider these two titles as reflections of each other.

“On the promenade / The old gods are returning,” sings Alasdair MacLean on ‘The Neighbour’, the new record’s opening track. The Clientele’s visions are neither thunderous nor grand; their gods are harvest deities and domestic spirits; their music is a gentle evocation of a past that recedes whenever you try to lay hold of it. They are nostalgic in the etymological sense of the word: homesick. And home is never quite the place – or in the place – that you keep expecting it to be.

It would be easiest to say that The Clientele sound like The Beatles, but a million bands sound a bit like The Beatles and yet sound nothing like The Clientele. Their version of The Beatles is closest to what that band achieved at its most wistful: ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’, ‘Within You Without You’, the 1967 instrumental ‘Flying’. MacLean’s voice has something of John Lennon’s huskiness, without Lennon’s heat.

The Beatles once used Indian sitar; on Music for the Age of Miracles, their first album in eight years, The Clientele have chosen to incorporate the santoor, an Iranian dulcimer, and the saz, a type of lute, both played by the group’s newest member, Anthony Harmer. (The band has always been, at its core, a trio: singer, guitarist and main songwriter MacLean, drummer Mark Keen, and bassist James Hornsey, with other musicians coming and going.) Neither saz nor santoor is conspicuous, but each adds to the mix a brightness like the call of crickets in high summer. Lots of Clientele songs take place in the summer, though it’s as tempting to describe them as “autumnal” as it is to compare them to The Beatles. Their season is summer when the scent of autumn’s decay is on the breeze. A summer at the end of the Empire, like the summer of Jonathan Miller’s languid film of Alice in Wonderland (1966) with a soundtrack by Ravi Shankar.

But it has always seemed to me that The Clientele’s evocation of the ’60s is deliberately askew. When you try to trace their aesthetic to a particular source, the trail vanishes. Did any ’60s group really sound like this? Not wholly. I can imagine a Clientele record showing up in a story where the lead character finds it tucked among the racks in a junk shop, and, upon listening, is pitched into another time: not the past, but a parallel universe.

The Clientele often dot their albums with short interludes, snatches of instrument and field recording, the effect of which is to nudge the rest of the songs into that other world, to become things overheard there. The interludes are the thresholds.

There are three such on Music for the Age of Miracles: ‘Lyra in April’, ‘Lyra in October’ and ‘North Circular Days’, all composed by Keen. The first is made of pensive piano and the jag of radio static; the second of birdsong, harp and distant bells. ‘North Circular Days’, the album’s penultimate track, features cello, piano again – a sequence of melancholy arpeggios – and the sound of wind recorded in the garden of the late English filmmaker Derek Jarman, whose cottage on the Kentish coast, near a nuclear power station, still attracts pilgrims more than 20 years after his death.

Jarman, too, was interested in thresholds. In Ashden’s Walk On Møn (1973), one of his many experimental Super 8 films, the blue-white glow of a spiral galaxy is superimposed with footage of field grasses, standing stones and forest trees. Something strange and wild, like a divinity, keeps threatening to break through the film’s gentle textures.

The constellation Lyra can be seen in the northern sky. It is named after the lyre of Orpheus, the musician who could charm even the stones with his playing, but who could not retrieve his beloved, the nymph Eurydice, from Hades. At the lip of the tunnel between the worlds of the living and the dead Orpheus turned to look for Eurydice, and she disappeared.

“True singing is a different breath, about / nothing,” wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke in the third of his Sonnets to Orpheus. “A gust inside the god. A wind.” In order to safeguard what is precious, one must turn away at the very moment of its becoming.

For all that they are musicians of the suburbs and, more particularly, those places where the suburbs edge back towards vegetation (parks, railway verges, vacant lots), The Clientele are also dedicated wayfarers of London. “Five o’clock, and in the street by Russell Square / the strip lights shine / I disappear,” sings MacLean on ‘Lunar Days’, from the new album, adding to a song map of the city that dates back to The Clientele’s beginnings.

‘Lunar Days’ is crisply recorded, down to the tambourine, but crisp hasn’t always been The Clientele’s way. Their early recordings, the ones gathered on Suburban Light and their first “proper” album, The Violet Hour (2003), are dewy with reverb, which was as much a method of dealing with the group’s own technical limitations as it was an aesthetic choice. (Reverb disguises a lot: thin vocals, shaky playing.) Many of those songs were recorded onto a cheap 8-track cassette machine – on some, you can hear the tape hiss – and the result was, in MacLean’s description, “the sound of distance, but also the sound of memory”, at once familiar and obscured. “Terraces that climb like vines / Towards the moon that hangs above another night,” he sang of London streetscapes on the title track to The Violet Hour, his hazy vocal barely rising above a jangling electric guitar and a close, warm-toned bass.

The Clientele have never since tried to re-create their early sound, which has made it easy to pine for, like the songs themselves pine after an irretrievable time and place. Compared with the almost accidental magic of those first records, the hazard of their later albums – God Save The Clientele (2007) and Bonfires on the Heath (2009) – has been a certain diminishment of mystery, so that their weaker songs, though well rendered, are merely pleasant. Music for the Age of Miracles feels like a reconstitution, if not of mystery then certainly of purpose, even if the longer tracks (‘Falling Asleep’, ‘Everything You See Tonight Is Different from Itself’) have a tendency to dawdle.

The pay-off lies in arrangements that give dynamism to the group’s best songwriting. ‘Everyone You Meet’ sails in on a subtle horn line that, as it runs into a string section at the song’s climax, becomes something beatific. “Everyone you meet breathes low,” sings MacLean, in a tone that suggests the open-heartedness that one can arrive at on the other side of exhaustion.

It’s not so different, really, from those long ago days of ‘The Violet Hour’. “And streets so filled with echoing / You’re so tired that you believe in everything,” MacLean sang then. Tiredness is an ideal state in which to approach The Clientele. Tired but in motion.

Any compilation of the best spoken-word songs would have to include The Velvet Underground’s comically macabre ‘The Gift’ and Gil Scott-Heron’s irreducibly radical ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, but I would also add a song from The Clientele’s 2005 album Strange Geometry; a song of such quiet, especial bereavement that it bruises the heart. It’s called ‘Losing Haringey’.

The Haringey in question is a borough of north London, and the story that MacLean reads over a lilting tune is set there. It’s a summer night, and the narrator walks until he has worn himself out, and then he sits down and finds himself suddenly recalled – displaced, even – to a photograph, “taken by my mother in 1982, outside our front garden in Hampshire”. The old house is there, his younger sister at the window; so close, in the mind’s eye, but so remote. The past overlays the present like a spectral image, but it cannot be brought back into being.

An answering song to ‘Losing Haringey’, called ‘The Museum of Fog’, unfolds on Music for the Age of Miracles: another summer’s night, another encounter with memory so vivid as to tip the narrator into a kind of emotional vertigo. He’s in a pub this time, listening to a band whose sound he recognises “as my own 16-year-old laughter”, which drifted through the same pub on a different evening, decades earlier. The music “briefly brought the past back to life”, narrates MacLean, over a tangle of stringed instruments, “old hopes and innocence burst into sudden flower”.

You will have realised by now that what The Clientele do is in its way quite narrow: an obsessive treading along paths that seem, in the right kind of light, to be leading somewhere bewitching, though they never quite do. This is not, after all, an age of miracles. “In the age of miracles, well all that you hear / Is the sound of the wind,” sings MacLean on the title track, which closes the record. That is a sorrow. Yet the wind may bring a windfall.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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