Review Summary: Turn down that Metallica album and prepare to embrace your third age of musical angst
Tindersticks announced their arrival in 1993 with a self titled debut of unparalleled quality, an experimental tour de force of genres that was brimming with enough quirky musical gestures and lyrical eccentricities to last most bands an entire career. It has matured well too; in this age of fan-funded recording requests my money would go to current indie heavyweights The National demanding they record a cover version of that entire album forthwith, such is the musical kinship between the artists. As impressive as that first album undoubtedly is it’s strange when you realise that it wasn’t until their second album that the band revealed their archetypal sound; here they take the maudlin, stately ballad ‘Raindrops’ from the début as a blueprint and imagine an entire album of similar songs embellished with confident string arrangements and infused with an inky black night-time atmosphere.
To explain the appeal of this band I'd like to (gulp) paraphrase Shakespeare, in particular a speech from ‘As You Like It’; instead of the ‘seven ages of man’ here in the field of popular music we deal with what I like to refer to as the ‘three ages of angst’. Think of it as an evolutionary chain, many of us arrive at music in our young teens full of an unspecific rage that lends itself to metal, punk or hip hop before moving on to the more existential late teen indie-rock concerns of finding the perfect style of jeans and despairing about not getting laid. Some may be under the false impression this is the final stage of musical angst evolution, that this period extends for as long as youthful blood pumps through your veins before inevitably dissipating into a contented stage of young adulthood marked by listening to a lot of Zero 7. Not so, in fact the third stage in this chain can extend far longer than the other two put together; I am of course referring to the age of ‘relationship angst’. This is where Tindersticks operate, shining a light on the manifold fears and frustrations of the romantically active adult; in their own way the songs of this chamber pop act display just as much angst as those from yer Cobain’s or Reznor’s.
The track titles say it all really, ‘A Night In’, ‘No More Affairs’, ‘Mistakes’; these songs are focused on the breaking points of relationships, sometimes detailing the moments of conflict but more often focusing on the inevitable long stretches of regret that follow them. The album is ballad heavy and arguably represents the band’s finest collection assembled on the one disc; ‘Tiny Tears’, ‘A Night In’, ‘No More Affairs’, ‘Talk to Me’ and ‘Mistakes’ are all uniformly impressive, the last-mentioned of these boasting such a strong arrangement that Stuart Staples feels confident enough to do away with lyrics and sing wordless passages of ‘la dur dur dums’ in his deep baritone at various junctures.
The ballads may define this release but that’s not to say the remaining material included here is in any way inferior; quite the contrary, this is where the album shows its real strength. ‘My Sister’ is the best example of the band in storyteller mode to date, the lyrics painting a stunningly vivid character portrait over its eight minute runtime. ‘Snowy in F# Minor’ adopts the fastest time signature of the album, the intermittent chug chugging and wailing of instruments conjuring up images of the train referred to in the lyrics, before ‘Seaweed’ slows the pace to a crawl; here it sounds like the very same engine is now grinding to a halt and falling to bits while letting off mournful dying whistles. ‘Travelling Light’ is a countrified duet with The Walkabouts’ Carla Togerson that allows Staples to assume the boxing bag role, receiving body blows like ‘when times are good you’ll be glad you ran away’ from his scorned lover. Best of all is ‘She’s Gone’, the tender reflections of a man missing his daughter set against a beautiful backdrop of rippling piano and muted strings that showcases Tindersticks at their understated best.
The band would follow this album with 1997’s ‘Curtains’, similar in style to this release and a third classic in a row, before moving on to the comparatively brighter soul-pop territory of their subsequent works. They’d prove themselves to be a highly consistent and resilient act thriving despite multiple personnel and label changes, but never straying too far from this blueprint. Indeed why would they? Tindersticks successfully distilled the very essence of their music here, an achievement that eludes many artists; romantic inadequacy and the all consuming regrets of adulthood have rarely sounded so good.