The band goes for the gusto on dizzying double album I Am Not There Anymore
“We stopped worrying if we were gonna make fools of ourselves,” says Alasdair MacLean of the guiding principle behind The Clientele’s new album.
“We might lose our dignity a little bit but we’re gonna take some risks. We’re gonna take it a stage further into other types of music… different kinds of rhythms. We just decided to get off our dignified perch and potentially make asses of ourselves.”
I Am Not There Anymore, the British band’s ninth album, hasn’t made asses of singer/guitarist MacLean, bassist James Hornsey, and drummer Mark Keen. Instead, it’s revitalized the band’s 25-year recording career by finding multiple new ways for them to be The Clientele.
Don’t be alarmed—the band’s delicately tuneful blend of ‘60s-indebted psych pop and folk rock still bears its core elements, but the record reaches out in all manner of new directions.
“It’s a big record with a lot of new ideas,” says MacLean, “and I tried to put everything that I knew into it.”
Those ideas include unusual rhythms and time signatures, loops, samples, avant-garde string arrangements, and even multiple languages. There’s so much going on that they needed a double album to make it all fit. “We just recorded and recorded and eventually we had droney songs, we had songs with very fussy chamber-pop chord changes…we had songs that were more almost atonal, we had piano pieces too, and spoken word stuff, and I was like, ‘How on earth are we gonna sequence this? How are we gonna make this into a 45 minute album? We’re gonna leave off all the weird stuff and we’ll just keep the songs.’ And I really didn’t want to do that. We were lucky we had the opportunity that Merge said, ‘Make it a double album if you want to.’ We were lucky to get away with that.”
Opening cut “Fables of the Silverlink,” for instance, inserts Hindi and Spanish phrases into its lyrics over tugging cello riffs and syncopated, polyrhythmic loops. The Hindi lines are associated with a sculpture of Shiva that looms large in MacLean’s memory, and the Spanish was translated and sung by friend Alicia Macanas. MacLean wryly offers, “It’s pretentious as anything, isn’t it? But I like pretentiousness, I think people should be pretentious more often. There’s not enough pretension in guitar music these days.”
“Dying In May” deals in challengingly exotic beats and temporal puzzles.
“I have a classical guitar background and I know a little about flamenco,” says MacLean. “I’ve always listened to a lot of flamenco music, and I thought, ‘Let’s get a flamenco rhythm going.’ It’s in 9/8 time… I do something over the top of it in 4/4. We bought a computer where you can process those sort of things and you can try them out. So just putting those kinds of things together helped shape the songs. We started with the rhythm on those, and I wrote the songs over the rhythm. I think that was the difference in the approach.
AUDIO: The Clientele “Dying In May”
One of the more radical experiments is “My Childhood,” a track that doesn’t even include any of the band members. Jessica Griffin reads a poem by MacLean over an avant-garde string quartet. “The string quartet is atonal,” he says. “It’s a notation of the sound of the wind. I recorded a field recording of the wind, and there’s a feature in [recording software] Ableton where you can take cadences and frequencies and change them into MIDI notation. I thought I’d try and break it. There aren’t any notes in the wind. So Ableton completely freaked out. I took the results…and I sent them through to the string quartet, who immediately had a coronary and said ‘This is unplayable!’” MacLean laughs, and adds, “And then I thought, ‘Let’s poke someone really hard in the eye with this by reading a kind of symbolist poem on top of it and see what we end up with.’”
There’s a cyclical element to the album, with music and lyrical callbacks running throughout. The vocal from “My Childhood” is reprised as closing track “The Village Is Always on Fire,” with drums and a deep drone replacing the string arrangement. But even that isn’t what it seems.
“One of the nice things about the drone that’s on that last song is that it’s the sound of bees,” reveals MacLean. “There’s a field recording of bees, and it’s slowed down, because bees buzz in the key of C. It’s tested, you can look it up. So that’s a hive of bees you can hear under Jessica reading my poem. It just felt like it was a nice way to end the record.”
Hazy memories of youth, whether symbolic or anecdotal, billow through several songs. Like much about The Clientele’s music, they’re evanescent.
“They may have been my memories at one point,” says MacLean, “but then they changed into something else. Your childhood is an impossibility once it’s gone. You kind of remember it but you don’t remember it from the same place, so therefore you don’t correctly remember it at all. I don’t have that certainty that my memories are real. I kind of know they’re real, but I can’t prove it.”
VIDEO: The Clientele “Blue Over Blue”
One of the most linear recollections comes in “Chalk Flowers,” a heart-stoppingly poignant reminiscence of MacLean’s student days in Scotland. “It was probably the first time I really, properly fell in love,” he says, “with a very mysterious girl who lived in Edinburgh. That’s kind of the city being described—the palaces and priest holes…that’s the story of that love affair, and then leaving, going South again and leaving it behind.” You know it’s a Clientele album when the most touching song includes the term “priest holes.”
Especially evident here is one of MacLean’s songwriting signatures: the use of details so specific that often there’s probably no other song that includes them by anybody. In “Chalk Flowers,” images like Swan Vestas matchbooks and the morphine brand Oramorph fill the bill. “If you put in a detail that’s clearly true from something that actually happened it makes the whole rest of the story seem more trustworthy,” MacLean avers.
And it wouldn’t be a Clientele album without a few spectral presences floating around. The most overt is the subject of “Lady Grey.”
“There was a road called Bagwell Lane in the town where we grew up,” reports MacLean, “where there was reportedly a ghost called Lady Grey who appeared, walked across the road, and vanished into a pond, but walked through the lane at night. I loved the idea of that.”
I Am Not There Anymore arrives six years after its predecessor, Music for the Age of Miracles, which itself ended another six-year hiatus.
“My attitude is always, ‘Just wait and do nothing,’” explains MacLean. “Don’t do anything until an idea comes. And when that idea does come, capture it as quickly as possible. Six, seven years can go past before you have a record if you do that. But you’re genuinely only making the things that are really inspired. You’re not making a record so you can go on tour. You’re making a record because the record is asking to be made.”
In this case, the time between releases was more fruitful than ever. I Am Not There Anymore seems unlikely to alienate old-school Clientele lovers, but it boasts a ton of new tricks that might bring some new blood aboard the fan train.
“I wanted to put everything I knew on this record as if it was the last project I would work on,” says MacLean. “Because I had things to say, and I wanted to add them up…in one big, hopefully glorious mess.”
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