The image of fires burning on clear expanses of useless and barren land was the first association I had when I heard the title to The Clientele’s new album, Bonfires on the Heath. While decidedly within bandleader and songwriter Alasdair MacLean’s well-established artistic vocabulary of scene-setting nature snapshots, elemental yet distanced physicality, and pastoral English life, it rings with a feeling more desolate than the wistful melancholy we’ve come to expect from these guys (and gal). Combine this image with the Briticism “one’s native heath”, which refers to a person’s place of birth and childhood, and we’re tipped off that this affair might be more bitter than sweet. A listen through confirms this. Though not exactly self-flagellating, this album is filled with self-doubt, hallucinatory perception, and identity slippage. While the recipe for some pretty shitty music in most hands,The Clientele handle this disjointed subject matter with their usual aplomb, keeping things relatively simple and elegant instead of attempting to blow your mind. And before taking the music for granted for too long, which is easy to do with a band so consistent, I should say it is once again sturdily constructed, moodily yearning, surprisingly playful, and achingly beautiful.
First song “I Wonder Who We Are”, easily one of their best upbeat songs yet, comes out of the gate as a showcase of pretty much everything to come. In fact, when not in reflective mode, it sounds of a piece with bombastic, late-70’s game show music or Lee Hazlewood’s late-period, lounge lizard style. Starting with a ringing piano note that is so The Clientele that it could pretty much encapsulate their entire aesthetic if such a brief description was necessary, this song introduces many of the surprises the rest of the album holds: a blustery brass section, English folk runs, prominent piano accompaniment, and the lyrical themes of existential uncertainty, facial recognitions, paranoia, and corporeal ephemerality. Lines like the introductory “It’s Friday night, and I don’t have a clue” or the declaration “I know someone is following me, to my littered face on the streets” set the stage for the disoriented characters who inhabit the rest of the album.
As with any album from The Clientele, Bonfires on the Heath works on two levels in a similar way to Brian Eno’s famous definition of ambient music: enjoyable in the background, but rewarding upon close inspection. Heck, it’s even enjoyable in the foreground without close inspection. Overall, The Clientele is sort of like a period piece, calling on all manner of loose melodic pop styles from all manner of decades, and so can be listened to for a little easy nostalgia without deep engagement. Yet, their attention to mood and setting gives them that literary quality – as if each of their songs has a frame around it which you need to view it through– that begs for a more textural interpretation. The slow-burning title track comes second, and brings along with it haunting slide guitar, understated and ghostly background vocal harmonies from Mel Draisey, and a bassline which sounds at least partially cribbed from one of their earlier tracks, “Reflections After Jane”. These formal elements, along with the kids “jumping bonfires on the heath”, “late October sunlight in the wood”, “laughing windows up and down the street”, and “the walls…closing in on me” point toward memory’s domination of the aging process, and the accompanying countdown to death that can cause that scary sort of disintegration of everything you thought you knew about yourself. Next track, the psychedelic “Harvest”, is easily their strongest autumnal moment on record, the guitar sounding red, rusted, and languid amid vocal harmonies that would get the nod from Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and an account of bats in the eaves, scarecrows in the fields, and seasons changing (“Everything here has a place and a time/ We’re only passing through”).
Now that the scene is set, the band returns to the achingly beautiful territory covered on their previous album God Save the Clientele for a short victory lap. “Never Anyone But You” is a jaunty, string-backed tune with some very sad lyrics about a person haunted by voices everywhere, and with “a phantom in my breath” and “bones” after a life-changing summer. For “Jennifer and Julia” they tone things down to meditate on loneliness, with the song revolving around the simple sentiment “when will I see you again”. “Sketch” is a hard-charging and fun respite that sounds Austin-Powers approved, with MacLean listing things off in a whisper. “Tonight” comes back with another tender ballad led by piano which sounds too sweet and straightforward for The Clientele, with regretful lines about “all the things I’ve done wrong” and “all of the things you hate me for”. Turns out it’s a cover of a song by little known Swedish band Evergreen Days, and The Clientele play it beautifully.
From there, MacLean reinjects some of the surrealism that has always glinted along the edges of his band’s music, reimagining, “Share the Night”, one of the top tracks from last year’s Last Night, A Forest Grew EP. It hasn’t lost any of its boogie, but it adds some dimensions with some slacker guitar soloing and a brass section that sounds almost mariachi. The guitar soloing is something welcome to anyone who has seen the group play “Lamplight” live, and the brass sounds great in its own right, even as it parallels in the music some of the logical dissonance found in the lyrical themes up to that point. The result is strange, but not unwelcome. Following on its heels is the even more musically schizophrenic “I Know I’ll See Your Face”, which is a nice mid-tempo number about “go(ing) out to find a place that no one knows” which is interjected by even more mariachi brass parts and a flamenco guitar solo. It is definitely bizarre, but again, in a refreshing and listenable way. Past albums by the band, especially Strange Geometry and The Violet Hour could have used some more surprises like this. “Never Saw Them Before” deals with more hallucinatory visions, seeing one’s own face in the trees, a couple “in a hatchback, screwing on your lawn”, and “hearing God’s voice in the avenue”. Penultimate track “Graven Wood” is a cover of one of the band’s oldest songs. It plays well with openers “Bonfires on the Heath” and “Harvest” and thematically completes the circle of identity crisis and attempted recovery. On final track, “Walking in the Park”, MacLean remembers himself as a child watching rain fall through the windows of his school and is resigned to the approaching darkness, singing “I don’t know what more I can say”.
All in all, for The Clientele this is another great album in what’s getting to be a long line of great albums. While sharing all of the essential qualities of their past albums – ringing guitars playing simple arpeggios and aching tones, MacLean’s one-of-a-kind whispery singing voice, supple and melodic bass, crisp and workmanlike drumming, and a hazily poetic literary bent – Bonefires on the Heath sets itself apart in their catalog as an album that confidently integrates the familiar and the foreign, while chronicling a feeling beyond melancholy which sets these characters adrift, only loosely tethered to their own fragile realities. As ever, the poetics here are found where perception and identity comingle – either deep in the psyche or somewhere not far from the front of your face – and they cooly ask the questions each person usually takes for granted about what they know, and chart the slow progression of life in all its profundity and mundanity. Fortunately for the characters inhabiting these songs, and for fans of The Clientele, the fires are still burning.