The Clientele have been plying their trade for over a decade now, releasing album after album and single after single of woozy, mopey, melancholic pop — pop that would be riddled with cliches if not for the consummate skill with which it’s crafted. Their previous release, 2005’s Strange Geometry, found the band refining their sound somewhat, stripping away a few layers of bleariness, resulting in a slightly cleaner, brighter music. And that trend continues on God Save the Clientele, the band’s third proper album.
Even with the streamlining, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will mistake the Clientele for anyone else performing this kind of music. Much of this is due to Alasdair MacLean’s breathy voice, which sounds somewhere between a yawn and a teary-eyed sigh (I suppose you can toss out the Nick Drake comparison, but only as a starting point). That, and his often surreal lyrics, which are consistently odes to failed relationships, bittersweet yearnings, melancholy walks in the park, and child-like nostalgia.
On “Here Comes The Phantom,” MacLean confesses, as he walks through the trees (natch), “My heart is playing like a violin/Someday and she’ll call again/But where can I go/Somewhere the wind will blow me/Back into the conversations/Promises and situations.” Later on, during “Isn’t Life Strange,” MacLean ruminates over the life’s futility, his voice full of such longing and sympathy that otherwise mundane vignettes — “Jessica cries, she’s got nothing to wear/I sit beside her but nobody’s there,” “Isn’t life strange?/You end up alone/I call my folks but there’s nobody home” — become existential treatises.
As evocative as the band’s lyrics might be, much of their songs’ impact comes from the band’s incredible musicianship. MacLean’s guitar-playing is as dextrous and delicate as his voice, and during tracks like “From Brighton Beach To Santa Monica,” you’re afraid to breathe wrong lest you send the fragile notes a-tumbling. At the same time, bandmates Mark Keen, James Hornsey, and newcomer Mel Draisey flesh out the songs on drums, bass, and violin, respectively. The more I listen, the more I think Hornsey is the band’s secret weapon — his supple, fluid basslines often serve as the songs’ true anchor whilst his bandmates’ playing drifts by overhead.
While the band doesn’t deviate too much from their trademark sound — though they ladle on even more string and horn arrangements (due, in no small part to the addition of Draisey) — they do a few things that might even cause longtime fans to perk up their ears.
Pedal steel winds its way through “These Days Nothing But Sunshine,” its dulcet tones melding perfectly with the the tinkling piano, chiming guitar, and wistful vocals. However, the album’s standout track — and one of the best tracks the band has recorded to date — is “Bookshop Casanova,” which injects the band’s autumnal sound with a stomping disco beat, gauzy keys, jittery strings, and even a searing guitar solo for good measure.
It sounds rather out of character for the band, who are normally so quiet, forlorn, and reserved. Which, of course, is partially why it succeeds so brilliantly. Of course, heartache and loss are still right around the corner, but it’s a joy to hear the band get a little funky, if only for a moment, before returning to the melancholia in time to end the album with the oh so poetic tearjerker “Dreams Of Leaving.”
“Good night my angel of the dark,” MacLean sings over Spanish guitar and swooning, cinematic strings. “I gotta go, it’s nearly morning/Though leaving you will break my heart.” MacLean sighs away, but with such confidence and tenderness that it could make an old English miser snuffle: “Don’t be afraid of dreams of leaving/Remember they are only dreams/They have no meaning in the sunlight/Just the same as you and me.” Meanwhile, the strings rise up and enfold the listener the way a lover’s embrace only does in half-remembered memories, and everything slowly fades away in such lovely mopery.