id anyone ever have any money riding on if and when the Clientele would crack a joke?
After a singles collection (Suburban Light) and a follow-up album (Strange Geometry) stuffed to the gills with gossamer, wistful fuzz guitar and wax paper vocal verses, the Clientele had chiseled out a concise little niche. They psyche without pills, they mourn without booze, and you get the feeling they keep little more than Thomas Hardy and Ian McEwan on their collective bookshelf.
Or so we Americans thought.
On God Save the Clientele (could that be…a tongue-in-cheek album title!), the Clientele take their frown and flip it, if not totally upside down, to the blessedly optimistic side of things, tossing in pedal and steel guitar, recording in Tennessee and poking fun an their own, occasionally heavy-handed bookishness on “Bookshop Cassanova” and “Carnival on 7th Street.”
Where Strange Geometry stripped away the band’s earlier over-reliance on shimmering guitar pedals and the silk-screened vocal filters that turner lead singer Alisdair MacLean’s voice into a dangerously vocoder-like flutter, God Save the Clientele shocks the long-time listener with naked, brassy sonics. “I Hope I Know You” may have the same lyrical schoolboy doubt, but the guitar lines ripple like wires, and the drums actually have a crash and pulse.
Loyalists shouldn’t fear, however. The band’s lyrics still handle gardens (“The Garden at Night”), women who make “time whisper back again” (“The Queen of Seville”), tons of ghosts, and just how to endure heartbreak, loneliness, and all those other tropes that would make Philip Larkin proud (“These Days Nothing But Sunshine”—a throwback to earlier Clientele tissue-and-black-framed-glasses resolution). They just get to deliver their little pills with a cleaner, stronger punch.
In about half the album’s songs, a chorus of indiscernible whispers lurk beneath the main vocal track. You listen for a word, a phrase, an allusion, but it remains a pile of meaningless whispers. And that’s good. For a band who has struggled to make themselves heard and understood, God Save the Clientele may just be the Clientele casting some burdens to the wind, channeling all their adoration for Love and the Television Personalities with clear eyes, clear minds, and louder voices than they ever have before.
Think Wilco’s Summerteeth rerecorded with heavy doses of Hull and East London, afternoons turning into evening mist, and the corners of a mouth pulling into a ready smile. And when the first chorus on record (“Here Comes the Phantom”) dives into “My heart is playing like a violin!” you’re actually ready to believe it.