The Clientele were once the discerning indie critics’ discerning indie band. The songs collected on the UK group’s debut album, 2000’s Suburban Light, were first delivered in the collectible, cult-building format of 7″ singles. This daydreamy music made sense to ears attuned to not only the post-Beatles pop of Love, the Zombies, and the Left Banke, but also the impressionistic ache of Felt and the reverb-coated reveries of Galaxie 500. The Clientele were so sensitive to their critical impulses, their singer and guitarist, Alasdair MacLean, publicly rubbished Belle and Sebastian, whose fan base they would’ve been most likely to share. After releasing a spate of broadly similar-sounding albums with various subtle refinements, and even quitting their day jobs, they eventually took a break. On their most recent outing, 2017’s Music for the Age of Miracles, they sounded cozy and familiar, but also slightly diminished, like twilight passing into dark.
I Am Not There Anymore, just the Clientele’s second full-length album since 2009, draws much of its inspiration from what MacLean remembers about the early summer of 1997, and the lyrics allude frequently to the death of his mother during that period. On paper, the incorporation of spoken-word, field recordings, and piano instrumentals, along with horns and a string quartet, is in keeping with the lush expansiveness that has carried throughout the Clientele’s discography, from the steel and Spanish guitar of 2000’s The Violet Hour up to the last album’s Iranian instruments. The further addition of programmed drum and bass samples, similarly, is of a piece with MacLean’s longtime affinity for Boards of Canada. And yet the 19-track double LP feels like a step away from their characteristic sounds, embarking on a quest into the vast unknown. No wonder publicity stills for the album show the trio of MacLean, drummer Mark Keen, and bassist James Hornsey dressed up as knights in shining armor.
If the key difference for I Am Not There Anymore, as MacLean has observed, is the Clientele’s purchase of a computer, then, with all due respect: What took ’em so long? Album opener “Fables of the Silverlink” brings fractured electronic beats and haunting Spanish-language guest vocals to a bustling eight-and-a-half minutes’ worth of chamber pop, but that really undersells the album’s sonic adventurousness. “Garden Eye Mantra” glides like a dubwise Moon Safari with luxe strings and flickering “Dear Prudence” guitar lines. “Dying in May” ditches guitar altogether for a dizzying drone where French horn, cello, and Mellotron undulate amid clattering polyrhythms, equal parts flamenco and On the Corner. Minimalist piano-and-celeste instrumentals with titles like “Radial B” offer a meditative reprieve, keeping all this eventfulness from growing too overwhelming. More remarkable still is “My Childhood,” where Jessica Griffin of veteran indie-poppers Would-Be Goods recites eerie bricolage poetry over Psycho-worthy strings digitally transposed from field recordings of the wind; an abstracted reprise, “The Village Is Always on Fire,” swaps in backwards-sounding beats. From a band that once seemed destined to repeat themselves, it’s all enough to suggest a glimmer of Low-like reinvention.
A fresh sense of discovery also suffuses I Am Not There Anymore’s more straightforward songs. Lead single “Blue Over Blue” is a sumptuous, string-adorned psych-pop reflection on a moment’s unreality while lost in the woods, enlivened by hazy IDM beats and distortion that honks like a car horn. “Claire’s Not Real,” the song that contains the album’s evocative title lyric, starts off flirting with bossa nova and eventually settles into the sort of purplish, the Kinks-meet-Yo La Tengo mood piece the band has been futzing away with since Suburban Light’s classic “Reflections After Jane” and “We Could Walk Together.” Even the stately chamber-folk of “Hey Siobhan”—again, quintessential Clientele—leaves room for a gorgeous outro of voices layered in harmony over little more than a burbling bass line.
One of my favorite facts about the Clientele is that MacLean was working at a London publishing house in 1997, when he advised his bosses to reject the first Harry Potter novel. He considered it too watered down—“like Oasis” to the Beatles of the British authors of children’s fantasy he’d adored growing up. His own writing, like theirs, has always juxtaposed enchantment with the everyday. Proper names and an overweening Englishness make the Clientele’s lyrics feel personal and specific, but MacLean also paints in more widely resonant images, like three balloons in a white sky, sad green grass, or walking on a trampoline. On I Am Not There Anymore the lyrical style is as grandiloquent as the song structures and arrangements, tracing the emotional and geographic contours around the passing of MacLean’s mother through a kind of dream logic.
The first words on the album, from “Fables of the Silverlink,” are, delivered in MacLean’s ethereal sigh: “Blue sloes caught/In wet grass/Jarita lasya.” He soon follows this esoteric introduction with something devastatingly concrete: “I remember so well/She was dying in May.” Certain phrases and names recur across songs, like the rolling hatchbacks, glowing cigarettes, and mysterious “garden eye” that first appear on “Garden Eye Mantra” and return at the close of the penultimate track, “I Dreamed of You, Maria”—Maria, likewise, is a name that appears first on “Dying in May.” How all this fits together in a literal way can be unclear; perhaps, as MacLean sings amid the vintage Clientele poignance of “Lady Grey,” “All the beautiful things are opaque.” But a revelation comes near the end of “I Dreamed of You, Maria,” when MacLean sings, “And I knew that I would die.” Although a loving tribute to his mother, I Am Not There Anymore is ultimately a contemplation of our own mortality: a suburban-London book of the dead.
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