Teenage Fanclub - Bandwagonesque
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Let’s make one thing perfectly clear at the outset: I don’t care about Spin Magazine’s 1991 year end list. My disdain for Bandwagonesque has nothing to do with (and predates my knowledge of) the fact that Teenage Fanclub’s second album beat out Nevermind and Loveless for top honours. Thirteen years after, who cares? At the time, Bandwagonesque certainly seemed like a huge improvement on the band’s muddy, only intermittently bearable debut A Catholic Education, and they were certainly exploring a sound few others were at the time (“there is a specter haunting Europe; the specter of power pop”).
And my increasing reluctance to subject myself to Bandwagonesque isn’t because I just plain hate Teenage Fanclub. They’re actually one of my favorite bands; one that I think has rarely set a foot wrong in the last decade or so. They don’t strike me as mawkish or overly sentimental as they do some, and while I concede recent years have seen diminishing returns, I’m still not likely to part with my copy of Howdy!
No, I hate Bandwagonesque because it’s a shit album, with shit songs. It also finds them trapped halfway between the smirking sarcasm of their earlier work (remember that their first band, the Boy Hairdressers, had a debut single entitled “Golden Showers”) and their later, more successful sincerity. The hybrid approach doesn’t fit Teenage Fanclub (who would grow into one the finest purveyors of love songs in modern rock) very well at all.
I’m already anticipating the comments disparaging my parentage and intelligence for such an assertion, so I might as well get the really contentious part of my argument out of the way: “The Concept” really isn’t all that good. It’s not awful or painful to listen to, but it’s not “the best thing they’ve ever done”–it’s not even the best song on the album. It is trite and repetitive (in a bad way) and the end is an inferior example of the band’s Neil Young fandom (better examples abound, “Neil Jung” and “Gene Clark” being two of the biggest). The lyrics in the first half aren’t nearly as clever or funny as boosters of the song would have you believe, and there is an almost total disconnect between those lyrics and the rest of the song, the “I didn’t want to hurt you” refrain, the endless sighing coda and so on. The smirk you can almost hear in Norman Blake’s voice as he sings “She don’t do drugs but she does the pill” doesn’t exactly help.
For that matter, giving the coda nearly three minutes to unwind was a mistake. If you were used to A Catholic Education I’m sure “The Concept” was a revelation in contrast. But it’s 2004. We’ve had Grand Prix and Songs From Northern Britain and almost any song from those efforts kills “The Concept” stone dead. It’s a fan favorite, yes, but what keeps it up there is nostalgia, pure and simple. Which is a completely valid reason to love a song (I’m sure we can all think of personal examples), but not a valid reason to push others to acknowledge its “greatness”. In the past I’ve refrained from saying anything too bad about “The Concept”, but listening to Bandwagonesque in preparation for this article makes me realize that this was more a case of toeing the party line than my actual opinion.
If you want to really understand how much of a transitory effort Bandwagonesque is, listen to the next track. “Satan”: One minute and twenty-two seconds of pointless fuzz. It’s not entertaining, it’s not funny, and all it accomplishes is to take whatever meager momentum “The Concept” has built up and stop it cold. The album would not be any poorer for its absence.
But after that nadir, we do get one of the actual highlights of the album, “December”. The lyrics alternate between maudlin cliché (“She don’t even care / But I would die for her love”) and the slightly baffling (“I wanted to assassin you, December”). But here Gerard Love pulls off a trick he would soon be able to abandon entirely–the song sounds so good you don’t care what line of crap he’s spewing. Although the tone is wounded, “December” is also strangely magisterial; the narrator is probably completely hopeless, but the melody makes him sound perversely noble. If only that kind of alchemy could be brought to bear on some of the lyrics later on, we might have a half-decent LP.
But all the goodwill “December” has accrued is again erased in one fell swoop: “What You Do To Me”. If, as I’ve mentioned before, Norman Blake’s “Norman 3” works better as a standalone song due to its brilliant brainlessness, “What You Do To Me” is it’s evil twin; it doesn’t work at all. How can a song barely two minutes long seem so long and unending, so moronic? I know apparently many feel differently, but even so finding it included on the A Shortcut To Teenage Fanclub compilation was just staggeringly incomprehensible, except for its miniscule length. When detractors claim that Teenage Fanclub is saccharine and dim-witted, this is the song they’re talking about.
But after “What You Do To Me”, we come to the two-song stretch where Bandwagonesque comes closest to the glory often attributed to it. Raymond McGinley’s “I Don’t Know” isn’t that good compared to his later efforts, but here it sticks out like a sore thumb; despite the fact that it could use a trim, that gorgeous post-chorus guitar part and the more-than-adequate chorus leave it one of the best tracks here.
“Star Sign”, meanwhile, has the ignominious distinction of being on the few songs out there where the altered version on the compilation is superior to the original version. The abstract guitar scrapings of the intro on Bandwagonesque are certainly pretty, but they deserve their own song; hotwiring them on to the front of an otherwise great tune (along with “December” and “Alcoholiday” the only ones worthy of the record’s reputation) weakens both. On A Shortcut To Teenage Fanclub the intro is sheared off, leaving nothing but Love’s ode to superstition. As with “December” the lyrics are nothing special, but the sound makes up for it.
Unfortunately, the end of “Star Sign” marks the beginning of the worst stretch of Bandwagonesque. “Metal Baby”, “Pet Rock” and “Sidewinder” all suffer from pointlessly “clever”/cliché lyrics, the sense that they’re unfinished ideas (especially “Pet Rock”) and tepid melodicism. “Metal Baby” in particular shows that Blake and the other writers in the band were still stuck in the snarky mode displayed on A Catholic Education. One of the reasons that album doesn’t get many listens these days is because tracks like the hipster-baiting “Everybody’s Fool” don’t sound clever or funny any more (if they ever did), they just sound mean and shallow.
Thankfully “Alcoholiday” is next. This is the best song on the album, this is the song “The Concept” is in its dreams. It’s got a similar two-part structure, similar gee-tar fireworks, even similar melodic sighing–but it all works. The lyrics fit together, the second half doesn’t drag (and the transition into it is much more natural), the guitars are more fully integrated into the song, and there’s actually some emotion behind this one. Now, I’m not saying that songs have to be emotional to be good, or anything equally spurious, nor am I saying that Teenage Fanclub should ditch their sense of humour. But the approach they take on “Alcoholiday” is the one that will dominate every record after Thirteen, and there’s a reason for that: It works for them. “Alcoholiday” is touching in a way “The Concept” and the shitty middle section of Bandwagonesque just isn’t; when Blake sings “We’ve got nothing worth discussing” it’s not a bitter kiss off, it’s a sad admission of fact. That the songwriting and performances on the rest of this album mostly shy away from this kind of truth shows that the band were trapped between approaches at this point in their career. If they’d reverted back to A Catholic Education levels of distortion and mockery after 1991, Bandwagonesque would be their highlight, since it would be the only record of their career to be at all worthwhile (yes, I know “Everything Flows” is on ACE, but that barely makes up for the “Catholic Education” and “Heavy Metal” tracks).
After that, it’s all over but for the shouting. Love’s “Guiding Star” is decent, at least up until the point where he sings that he “kinda likes” Jesus both for “the way he wears his hair” and “the way he walks on air” (a section bound to infuriate pretty much everyone with its inanity), but it’s too late to save the album. And then there’s “Is This Music?”
Now, I don’t want to be too tough on “Is This Music?”, because in isolation I actually enjoy its tinny guitars and soaring refrain quite a bit. It’s a fun little instrumental, and certainly worse than it appears on Bandwagonesque. But what is it doing at the end of the album? The previous songs have already been badly paced enough, and then the bad leaves us with this little morsel. Coupled with detritus like “Satan”, “What You Do To Me” and “Pet Rock” it lends Bandwagonesque the air of a bad joke. This is their opus? This is the record that is still their most successful? The best you can do is some guitars doing what sounds like an imitation of MIDI horns? It’s a neat trick, admittedly, but the ultimate ridiculousness of it epitomizes everything wrong with the fatally flawed Bandwagonesque.