Despite being around since the early 90s, The Clientele has only released two full-lengths, 2003’s The Violet Hour and most recently, Strange Geometry. (2000’s Suburban Light was actually a compilation of singles and b‑sides.) But it seems odd to me to listen to The Clientele in the album format. Not that their music isn’t pleasant all the way through. It’s just that their particular brand of nostalgia-washed, autumnal pop seems much better suited to a shorter format.
One of the central themes of the band’s songs is the impermanence of things, be it childhood, romance, a party, or just a particularly fine day. And what better format for making the listener experience that impermanence for themselves than the EP or single? The listener gets a taste of something beautiful and gorgeous, something enthralling, and just when they’re ready for more, it’s over. It becomes a bittersweet and singular experience, one that is partially defined by its brief existence, which makes it all the more poignant.
I suppose that’s a rather depressing thought, but The Clientele is one of those rare groups for whom depressing, melancholic expressions become something quite rapturous. On the surface, their music is as clichéd as one could imagine, full of woozy British vocals that are just the right mixture of breathy and fey, with delicate guitars, brushed jazz drumming, the occasional field recording, and one pining, wistful lyric after another.
Adding to the etherealness is the constant haze of analog tape hiss, 4‑track buzzes and pops, and vinyl crackling, which enforces the notion that this is music from a different era. But the Clientele push the clichés so far that they break through, sounding wholly original and their own.
What this means is that The Clientele becomes one of those rare pop groups that you listen to, not for their hooks or melodies or choruses — which the trio has in great abundance, make no mistake — but for the atmosphere that their music conjures up. Listen to the typical Clientele song and you’ll find that there’s as much ambience lurking there in the nooks and crannies as there is in any Brian Eno album.
So what of Strange Geometry? With their latest album, the band, with the help of producer Brian O’Shaughnessy, has done a rather unthinkable thing; they’ve peeled away some of that atmosphere (relatively speaking, of course). Which, on the one hand, can’t help but feel like something of a loss. I always found the analog imperfections that coated and muffled The Violet Hour to be as much an instrument as MacLean’s Telecaster. And in some ways, the songs on this album feel a little plainer, a little bare without that tape hiss feeling in the gaps.
However, the smoothing out process allows the band to incorporate elements that would otherwise have been smothered by their dreamier sound. Louis Phillipe’s string arrangements form a sympathetic undercurrent for “(I Can’t Seem To) Make You Mine” that matches the lyrics’ scenes of MacLean stumbling around in a daze, reeling from the departure of yet another lover. Elsewhere they add a playful, flirtatious tint to “E.M.P.T.Y,” one of the album’s bouncier tracks.
The Violet Hour still has a deeper hold in my subconscious that I’m not sure the new album will replace anytime soon (and their earlier EPs, such as A Fading Summer have an even deeper hold). But there’s no use denying that there are still some fine, fine songs on here. The first single, “Since K Got Over Me,” is one of the finest things the band has written to date. With its staggered guitars and twilit organs, “Geometry Of Lawns” begs to be listened to whilst on some autumnal drive through the countryside (in fact, it was during one such excursion that the album truly began to sink in for me).
Strangely enough, though, the album’s crux comes during “Losing Haringey,” which follows the narrator as he finds himself exhausted by the woes of modern life — rent, failed relationships, soulless jobs — only to get caught up in the memories of a childhood photo from 1982. What makes the track remarkable is that it’s actually a spoken word piece, with MacLean wooing and wailing in the back like some long-forgotten ghost trying to make his presence felt. As pretentious as the whole thing sounds, it works quite wonderfully.
Probably because, as the narrator goes on to describe the details of his youth, it becomes a pretty clear parallel to what it is that makes The Clientele’s music tick. That is, the constant appeal of yesteryear, the power of nostalgia, the presence of memories, and the tension between the desire to move forward with life and yet hope that it’s more like it was back then.
That, and sometimes, it just feels really good to mope.