Album Review: The Clientele - Music For The Age Of Miracles
There’s always a worry when a band comes back from a hiatus or break up that they’re doing it for the wrong reasons, that they won’t be able to recapture their previous greatness or they’ll hew too closely to their previous sound that they end up sounding like a faded version of their former selves. The Clientele never intended to return after their 2010 mini-album The Minotaur, but a series of events including offers to play gigs with the original lineup and a chance encounter between Alasdair MacLean and a long-lost musical acquaintance spurred the old machine back into life again. Thus we have Music For The Age Of Miracles, and we should be thankful that fate turned out this way.
I said that one of the fears of a band reuniting is that they’ll sound like a weaker version of themselves, but there’s no doubt as soon as you press play on Music For The Age Of Miracles that you’re listening to The Clientele - yet it's comforting rather than dispiriting. The familiarity is instant, from the opening lines of first track ‘The Neighbour’: “Evening’s hymn conjures that park/ and out of the dark-”; the words “evening,” “park” and some mention of light (or lack of it) would probably all be in the most used in the band’s discography. Fortunately, familiarity has always been one of the things that makes The Clientele’s oeuvre so enjoyable; they’ve always had a classic sound that harks back to the 60s rock, words that are ethereal and an easygoing gait that is instantly warm and welcoming. So, it feels good to have that familiar old blanket draped over you again, to feel like you’re sitting by a fire on a dark evening, lost in thought and unaware of time – which is exactly how it feels to play Music For The Age Of Miracles.
The Clientele have always used their home of London to emphasise both the vastness and the quietness of the images and emotions contained within the words, and this album takes that even further. Throughout the album there are references to constellations and seasons; ungraspable scenes that reflect inner turmoil. The album is intrinsically connected to the movement of the Earth around the sun, and the human experience through this ever-shifting perspective. This is rendered beautifully by their melodies, this time around buoyed by the dulcimer and arrangement prowess of new member Anthony Harmer.
Highlight ‘Falling Asleep’ takes place in one of The Clientele’s favourite realms, the long dark night, and as MacLean sings about all sorts of luminous imagery (“low, red rising moon”; “September’s stars”; “ursa major at the edge of the rain”), they are brought into focus by the plucked dulcimer strings and glistening violins running concurrently with the band’s unmistakable gait. ‘Everyone You Meet’ again finds us in the middle of a lonely night, and along with ‘Lunar Days’, provides the album’s most traditional chorus, this time MacLean singing wistfully “blue very blue/ I can’t sleep at night/ I don’t know what to do,” a basic plea elevated to soul-twisting sadness by the windswept violins. ‘Museum Of Fog’ will immediately appeal to long-term fans of The Clientele as it is a spiritual successor to one of their absolute classics ‘Losing Haringey’ (and the lesser known ‘The Green Man’), in that it is a haunting, out-of-body, spoken word piece, the plot of which I wouldn’t like to spoil here, as it is a journey worth taking.
There are some more new tweaks and twists to the familiarity aside from the addition of dulcimer. This is most prominent on ‘Everything You See Tonight Is Different From Itself’, where they use programmed drums, vocal manipulation, subtle electronics, harp, glittering piano and a trumpet solo to usher along immaterial imagery within which is the purest distillation of nostalgia. With mentions of empty houses, boiling the kettle and listening to school bells sing, it’s a wholly beautiful composition, brought to a head when all the aforementioned instrumentation drops out and MacLean sings “Ballerina, breathe,” as if he is catching his breath amongst the deluge of unquantifiable feelings. ‘The Circus’ is almost entirely built upon plucked strings and violin, taking us on a delicate waltz as “we skipped through the cracks,” before coming to the conclusion “there’s trash on the lawn/ A quiet phone is ringing inside/ and life is a lie.”
It’s this precipice between beauty and misery that The Clientele balance upon throughout Music For The Age Of Miracles, and what makes it such a success. More than ever, the human experience is tangible through their music, and they manage to create those unmaintainable moments of joy that can, in a moment or a movement, dissolve into something else entirely; a memory of something long forgotten, a vision of your inconsequentiality in the world, a realisation that everything is temporary. Fortunately, they are not always downers, moreover it just feels comforting to have those feelings quantified so stirringly through music.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 28th September 2017.