Are You Scared To Get Angsty?

You don’t decide to listen to this kind of music: it chooses you. Indie kids are born not made, see, and one day at the crossroads, after the seventeenth pointless, exhausting infatuation, after the twenty-fifth rebuff, and the thirty-eighth black-souled tramp across town with a walkman glued to the ears, a band like Spearmint comes up to them, taps them on the shoulder, and says “You’re mine. You don’t have to sell your soul, though. Just your life.”

At my age you get to blame it all on adolescence, when the penny drops that some of the pretty kids liked this music too, and then you feel a bit embarassed by how much the stuff meant to you. “The most passionate songs are the lonely songs, so easily outgrown” , as the personal guru of my teenagerdom put it. But it’s too late really, your emotional circuits have been rewired, and it doesn’t take much to take you back up to the bedroom with the C90s and the lyric sheets, just a boy with his heart in his throat and a sharp turn of phrase. Once the sensitivity bug’s bitten you, you’ll always walk around with an invisible bunch of daffs in your back pocket, no matter how often you buy Maxim and pretend otherwise.

And then you get to Shirley Lee of Spearmint’s age (pushing forty, apparently) and you’ve still not outgrown those lonely songs, so what the hell do you do? Making a record as catchy, clever and intimate as A Week Away seems like a good start. Shirley’s a boy, by the way, but then Big Daddy’s name was Shirley too: born not made, like I said. If I was to also say that A Week Away is pitched precisely midway between the Wedding Present’s strummed, strangled conversational confessionals and Pulp’s mass-observation art-pop, I’d be doing Spearmint a bit of a disservice, but only a bit.

I’d also be giving fair warning to the hordes of readers for whom pitiable whiteboy soulbaring is musically tumourous. Spearmint are not innovators, miles from it, but they are doing something that’s not been fashionable since the Stone Roses came along and convinced everyone that attitude was where it’s at and it was much better to wear something groovy on your chest than get something off it. Ten to one Spearmint won’t be fashionable either. Evens they don’t care, “Sweeping The Nation” and its success-or-bust ecstasies notwithstanding.

Spearmint play pop, but they don’t believe in pop as meat-rack or pop as role-playing glamour game or pop as craft, they believe in pop as the best way to inject a bit of honesty into the world. Sincerity’s not in general something I value in music, mostly because I’ve heard more than enough music which tries to excuse its pomposity or banality or overreach by coming over all heartfelt, and also because I can never hear enough music which uses its blatant money-making insincerity to cloak a stealthy stab to the heart. But Shirley Lee is either dangerously honest (almost every song bristles with authentic-sounding proper names in compromising situations) or fakes it well, and I like him whichever.

Maybe I like him because his kind of honesty isn’t all it seems – lovelorn pop like this tends to be about using pop as a trojan horse, to say things (generally to girls) that you wouldn’t dare in real life. That’s why so many of these tracks will end up on fearfully inappropriate compliation tapes destined to gather dust in the cupboards of unwitting and unwilling beloveds. A thousand passed-over casanovas reach for a thousand biros when they get to the end of “Start Again” and hear “And I’m sorry…to be so blunt / But that boy… is a cunt“, and an indie star is born.

Who am I kidding? I live for this stuff too. And while the angst and the wit and the thrashy, simple tunes are what pulls me in to A Week Away, there’s plenty there to suggest lasting appeal for Spearmint. That involving attention to detail that makes them fill their songs with names and places and stupid everyday incidents, for one thing. The snappy soul samples they love to use, for another. Shirley Lee’s breathy, up-close voice, unflinching but never over-the-top. The way he makes sure all his songs peak and resolve. The whole of the gleeful “We’re Going Out”. And the rueful sense of perspective Lee brings to his classic indie-pop themes. We’re older now and we’re clever swines, but part of us is always going to be sixteen, and when that part next surfaces, let nature beat nurture and buy this album.