The Clien­tele’s Mu­sic for the Age of Mir­a­cles

An­wen Craw­ford on The Clien­tele’s Mu­sic for the Age of Mir­a­cles

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - An­wen Craw­ford

On any given sub­ur­ban street at dusk, when some houses lie empty and the oc­cu­pants of the rest are lost to their or­di­nary du­ties, there is a sound that can be heard, if you lis­ten for it. It’s a kind of ex­ha­la­tion, made by the houses (by peo­ple, too, though less com­pletely), the sum of that day’s dust and weather and bore­dom, though the mood is not one of dis­sat­is­fac­tion but re­pose. Bore­dom can bring forth great dreams, after all, and in those mo­ments when the street has lost it­self in dream­ing there is an im­mi­nence, a sense of what you could stum­ble across if at last the mun­dane gave way to the won­drous.

I know of only one group of mu­si­cians who have cap­tured this even­fall prom­ise in song, not just once but many times, and they are an English band called The Clien­tele, who pro­nounce their name in the French way

(“Clee-on-tell”), and whose com­bi­na­tion of Euro­pean lit­er­ary sur­re­al­ism and English gui­tar pop has gifted to the world a clutch of beau­ti­ful records that the world has mostly ig­nored. The Clien­tele’s first al­bum – which was largely a com­pi­la­tion of 7-inch sin­gles – was called Sub­ur­ban Light (2000), and their new al­bum, their sixth, is called Mu­sic for the Age of Mir­a­cles. Con­sider these two ti­tles as re­flec­tions of each other.

“On the prom­e­nade / The old gods are re­turn­ing,” sings Alas­dair Ma­cLean on ‘The Neigh­bour’, the new record’s open­ing track. The Clien­tele’s vi­sions are nei­ther thun­der­ous nor grand; their gods are har­vest deities and do­mes­tic spir­its; their mu­sic is a gen­tle evo­ca­tion of a past that re­cedes when­ever you try to lay hold of it. They are nos­tal­gic in the et­y­mo­log­i­cal sense of the word: home­sick. And home is never quite the place – or in the place – that you keep ex­pect­ing it to be.

It would be eas­i­est to say that The Clien­tele sound like The Bea­tles, but a mil­lion bands sound a bit like The Bea­tles and yet sound noth­ing like The Clien­tele. Their ver­sion of The Bea­tles is clos­est to what that band achieved at its most wist­ful: ‘Nor­we­gian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’, ‘Within You With­out You’, the 1967 in­stru­men­tal ‘Fly­ing’. Ma­cLean’s voice has some­thing of John Len­non’s husk­i­ness, with­out Len­non’s heat.

The Bea­tles once used In­dian sitar; on Mu­sic for the Age of Mir­a­cles, their first al­bum in eight years, The Clien­tele have cho­sen to in­cor­po­rate the san­toor, an Ira­nian dul­cimer, and the saz, a type of lute, both played by the group’s new­est mem­ber, An­thony Harmer. (The band has al­ways been, at its core, a trio: singer, gui­tarist and main song­writer Ma­cLean, drum­mer Mark Keen, and bassist James Hornsey, with other mu­si­cians com­ing and go­ing.) Nei­ther saz nor san­toor is con­spic­u­ous, but each adds to the mix a bright­ness like the call of crick­ets in high sum­mer. Lots of Clien­tele songs take place in the sum­mer, though it’s as tempt­ing to de­scribe them as “au­tum­nal” as it is to com­pare them to The Bea­tles. Their sea­son is sum­mer when the scent of au­tumn’s de­cay is on the breeze. A sum­mer at the end of the Em­pire, like the sum­mer of Jonathan Miller’s lan­guid film of Alice in Won­der­land (1966) with a sound­track by Ravi Shankar.

But it has al­ways seemed to me that The Clien­tele’s evo­ca­tion of the ’60s is de­lib­er­ately askew. When you try to trace their aes­thetic to a par­tic­u­lar source, the trail van­ishes. Did any ’60s group re­ally sound like this? Not wholly. I can imag­ine a Clien­tele record show­ing up in a story where the lead char­ac­ter finds it tucked among the racks in a junk shop, and, upon lis­ten­ing, is pitched into another time: not the past, but a par­al­lel uni­verse.

The Clien­tele of­ten dot their al­bums with short in­ter­ludes, snatches of in­stru­ment and field record­ing, the ef­fect of which is to nudge the rest of the songs into that other world, to be­come things over­heard there. The in­ter­ludes are the thresh­olds.

There are three such on Mu­sic for the Age of Mir­a­cles: ‘Lyra in April’, ‘Lyra in Oc­to­ber’ and ‘North Cir­cu­lar Days’, all com­posed by Keen. The first is made of pen­sive pi­ano and the jag of ra­dio static; the sec­ond of bird­song, harp and dis­tant bells. ‘North Cir­cu­lar Days’, the al­bum’s penul­ti­mate track, fea­tures cello, pi­ano again – a se­quence of melan­choly arpeg­gios – and the sound of wind recorded in the gar­den of the late English film­maker Derek Jar­man, whose cot­tage on the Kentish coast, near a nu­clear power sta­tion, still at­tracts pil­grims more than 20 years after his death.

Jar­man, too, was in­ter­ested in thresh­olds. In Ash­den’s Walk On Møn (1973), one of his many ex­per­i­men­tal Su­per 8 films, the blue-white glow of a spi­ral galaxy is su­per­im­posed with footage of field grasses, stand­ing stones and for­est trees. Some­thing strange and wild, like a di­vin­ity, keeps threat­en­ing to break through the film’s gen­tle tex­tures.

The con­stel­la­tion Lyra can be seen in the north­ern sky. It is named after the lyre of Or­pheus, the mu­si­cian who could charm even the stones with his play­ing, but who could not re­trieve his beloved, the nymph Eury­dice, from Hades. At the lip of the tun­nel be­tween the worlds of the liv­ing and the dead Or­pheus turned to look for Eury­dice, and she dis­ap­peared.

“True singing is a dif­fer­ent breath, about / noth­ing,” wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke in the third of his Son­nets to Or­pheus. “A gust in­side the god. A wind.” In order to safe­guard what is pre­cious, one must turn away at the very mo­ment of its be­com­ing.

For all that they are mu­si­cians of the sub­urbs and, more par­tic­u­larly, those places where the sub­urbs edge back to­wards veg­e­ta­tion (parks, rail­way verges, va­cant lots), The Clien­tele are also ded­i­cated way­far­ers of Lon­don. “Five o’clock, and in the street by Rus­sell Square / the strip lights shine / I dis­ap­pear,” sings Ma­cLean on ‘Lu­nar Days’, from the new al­bum, adding to a song map of the city that dates back to The Clien­tele’s be­gin­nings.

‘Lu­nar Days’ is crisply recorded, down to the tam­bourine, but crisp hasn’t al­ways been The Clien­tele’s way. Their early record­ings, the ones gath­ered on Sub­ur­ban Light and their first “proper” al­bum, The Vi­o­let Hour (2003), are dewy with re­verb, which was as much a method of deal­ing with the group’s own tech­ni­cal lim­i­ta­tions as it was an aes­thetic choice. (Re­verb dis­guises a lot: thin vo­cals, shaky play­ing.) Many of those songs were recorded onto a cheap 8-track cas­sette ma­chine – on some, you can hear the tape hiss – and the re­sult was, in Ma­cLean’s de­scrip­tion, “the sound of dis­tance, but also the sound of mem­ory”, at once fa­mil­iar and ob­scured. “Ter­races that climb like vines / To­wards the moon that hangs above another night,” he sang of Lon­don streetscapes on the ti­tle track to The Vi­o­let Hour, his hazy vo­cal barely ris­ing above a jan­gling elec­tric gui­tar and a close, warm-toned bass.

The Clien­tele have never since tried to re-cre­ate their early sound, which has made it easy to pine for, like the songs them­selves pine after an ir­re­triev­able time and place. Com­pared with the al­most ac­ci­den­tal magic of those first records, the hazard of their later al­bums – God Save The Clien­tele (2007) and Bon­fires on the Heath (2009) – has been a cer­tain di­min­ish­ment of mys­tery, so that their weaker songs, though well ren­dered, are merely pleas­ant. Mu­sic for the Age of Mir­a­cles feels like a re­con­sti­tu­tion, if not of mys­tery then cer­tainly of pur­pose, even if the longer tracks (‘Fall­ing Asleep’, ‘Ev­ery­thing You See Tonight Is Dif­fer­ent from It­self’) have a ten­dency to daw­dle.

The pay-off lies in ar­range­ments that give dy­namism to the group’s best song­writ­ing. ‘Ev­ery­one You Meet’ sails in on a sub­tle horn line that, as it runs into a string sec­tion at the song’s cli­max, be­comes some­thing be­atific. “Ev­ery­one you meet breathes low,” sings Ma­cLean, in a tone that sug­gests the open-heart­ed­ness that one can ar­rive at on the other side of ex­haus­tion.

It’s not so dif­fer­ent, re­ally, from those long ago days of ‘The Vi­o­let Hour’. “And streets so filled with echo­ing / You’re so tired that you be­lieve in ev­ery­thing,” Ma­cLean sang then. Tired­ness is an ideal state in which to ap­proach The Clien­tele. Tired but in mo­tion.

Any com­pi­la­tion of the best spo­ken-word songs would have to in­clude The Vel­vet Un­der­ground’s com­i­cally macabre ‘The Gift’ and Gil Scot­tHeron’s ir­re­duc­ibly rad­i­cal ‘The Revo­lu­tion Will Not Be Tele­vised’, but I would also add a song from The Clien­tele’s 2005 al­bum Strange Ge­om­e­try; a song of such quiet, espe­cial be­reave­ment that it bruises the heart. It’s called ‘Los­ing Haringey’.

The Haringey in ques­tion is a bor­ough of north Lon­don, and the story that Ma­cLean reads over a lilt­ing tune is set there. It’s a sum­mer night, and the nar­ra­tor walks un­til he has worn him­self out, and then he sits down and finds him­self sud­denly re­called – dis­placed, even – to a pho­to­graph, “taken by my mother in 1982, out­side our front gar­den in Hamp­shire”. The old house is there, his younger sis­ter at the win­dow; so close, in the mind’s eye, but so re­mote. The past over­lays the present like a spec­tral im­age, but it can­not be brought back into be­ing.

An an­swer­ing song to ‘Los­ing Haringey’, called ‘The Mu­seum of Fog’, un­folds on Mu­sic for the Age of Mir­a­cles: another sum­mer’s night, another en­counter with mem­ory so vivid as to tip the nar­ra­tor into a kind of emo­tional ver­tigo. He’s in a pub this time, lis­ten­ing to a band whose sound he recog­nises “as my own 16-year-old laugh­ter”, which drifted through the same pub on a dif­fer­ent even­ing, decades ear­lier. The mu­sic “briefly brought the past back to life”, nar­rates Ma­cLean, over a tan­gle of stringed in­stru­ments, “old hopes and in­no­cence burst into sud­den f lower”.

You will have re­alised by now that what The Clien­tele do is in its way quite nar­row: an ob­ses­sive tread­ing along paths that seem, in the right kind of light, to be lead­ing some­where be­witch­ing, though they never quite do. This is not, after all, an age of mir­a­cles. “In the age of mir­a­cles, well all that you hear / Is the sound of the wind,” sings Ma­cLean on the ti­tle track, which closes the record. That is a sor­row. Yet the wind may bring a wind­fall.

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