The Clientele – Suburban Light

My favourite record of 2000 sounds like it fell through a hole in 1968, and waits in the here and now shyly and patiently, hoping people will notice it. Actually it crackles with a sensibility from still further back, because of how Alasdair Maclean sounds wide-eyed and polite and like he’s singing through gauze. If the sleeve had told me these sainted tracks were laid down in some manor house library, full of oak and old light, I’d not have been in the least bit surprised.

But don’t listen to me, the Clientele do this description stuff so much better – they after all put out a single called All The Dust And Glass, which is a) just beautiful and b) fits in a phrase everything you need to know about how these songs slowly dance and reflect and revolve. (More euphonious Clientele titles: “An Hour Before The Light”; “6AM Morningside”; “Monday’s Rain”, also just “Rain”; “Lacewings”, for God’s sake, who else could call a track that?)

A few years ago, meanwhile, conversations about innovation and pop, and whether things were ‘retro’ or not seemed terrifically important, because the charts were being held ransom by play-in-a-day dolts with Beatles songbooks, and our lovely modern dance music had been beaten back and was busily gentrifying itself to make it look like it didn’t care. Now the charts are full of exciting R’n’B songs, and everybody loves UK Garage, and the rockers are all rappers and the rappers are all ravers and it’s the ravers who all went retro and got stuck on a ’79 Chic-loop express to nowhere. So it doesn’t feel pop-ideologically bad to love a band like the Clientele any more. Maybe it never was. Maybe the retro-Dadrock-Weller wars were dumb anyway. Maybe the Clientele don’t sound like anyone else anyhow. Maybe I’m getting old.

Now there’s a thought: I was sitting in a pub with Tim Hopkins, because of whose taping generosity I heard the band first off, and he was saying how all great pop somehow pertains to (celebrates/mourns/reflects/rejects) being 16. This is a theory I want to disagree with, in fact which I do disagree with if I bother thinking hard about it. But like most good pop theories it’s trying to express something important and doesn’t respond well to hard thinking. The Clientele’s music feels older than 16, but the longing and nostalgia and confusion you catch in it is relevant to that age somehow. But can I even remember being sixteen, really? When I try, all I can think about is pop music.

My personal pet theory right now is the one about every single cultural act being at base a romantic act – i.e. the reason you create is so you might (let’s simplify) procreate. Or at least go through the hopefully inconsequential motions of same. The Clientele are down with this theory too, judging by how many of their really great songs are about desire. They do desire well – it’s easy for bands to write desire into a great stormy feeling, a noisy instrumental urge which could just about pass for a less funny or likeable version of lust. But desire in the Clientele’s world is a suffusing, inescapable sigh of a thing, a teasing shiver inbetween the beats of “I Had To Say This”, or Maclean’s simple sighing vowels on the chorus of “Rain”.

Which itself rolls more sweetly than the Byrds ever did, and should I perhaps mention here how poised and exquisite the Clientele are just as a band? You might be reading this and thinking, oh, it’s all about the lyrics, not for me then – but I couldn’t tell you what half these songs are about. Oh, I know exactly what all these songs are about – I just couldn’t tell you. A line might wander out at me here or there, but it’s the swaying willowy prettiness of the playing that carries the meaning and keeps it just out of articulate reach.

I can see willows every morning when I open my front door to walk into work, a walk which often now has been slowed and made magical by this CD, and it’s hard to write about the Clientele without writing about the enormous sense of time and place their songs carry. Some of this time and place is Oxford, late Autumn 2000, and has been put there by me: some of it is there anyhow, particularly nights and pre-dawns, and parks and the leafier corners of London. And rain, so much rain, the record is awash with it, a kind of imaginary lovers’ rain which you cannot imagine would ever be so horrid as to let one get wet, but exists simply to make things gleam and shift out of focus through glass.

The Clientele are, as far as the noise and heat of 2000 is concerned, so out of focus as to be hardly there at all. They have no relevance to the year’s pop bustle: they make the very idea of such relevance feel a bit silly, by making almost everything you could play after them sound rather crass and full of itself. Suburban Light will start or end no revolutions, will offend nobody, will not be no.1 in the US charts, experiments with nothing, predicts nothing, refuses to draw attention to itself, is almost flawless. It says nothing about 2000 but it says everything about my 2000: my decisions, obsessions and joys; my romantic head and my fallible heart. Yours too, if you let it.