Teenage Fanclub: the underdogs embrace adulthood
Mike Donovan | Wednesday, September 14, 2016
In 1986, Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream and his peers were curating Glasgow’s musical zeitgeist in the grimy, smoke-filled rooms of Splash One. The club — a snapshot of indie pop in its infancy — served as ground control for the rapidly growing C86 movement. A frequent host to epochal cult outfits like The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Pastels, Razorcuts, Wire, The Loft and Sonic Youth, Splash One attracted young, left-of-the dial romantics from across Scotland. Here, at the center of the new wave universe, Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley met. Four years later, in 1989, Blake and McGinley joined forces with bassist Gerard Love to form Teenage Fanclub.
With 1991’s “Bandwagonesque,” the group very nearly reached icon status. The power pop masterpiece funneled infectious melodies and transparent sentiments through a gritty, distorted filter to astonishing effect. The album’s unrestrained charisma seemed to rise straight out of Glasgow’s musty rock clubs, while the exceedingly catchy hooks clearly channeled Alex Chilton — the godfather of power pop and Teenage Fanclub’s most cited influence. A loud, ambitious and fittingly unstable bid for glory on the rapidly evolving alternative scene, “Bandwagonesque” managed to inch the band slightly closer to mainstream relevance. Its singles even cracked indie charts in both Britain and the U.S. The market for independent music in 1991, however, was a Darwinist landscape that favored Primal Scream’s dance rock efforts in the U.K. and Nirvana’s grunge sound stateside. Teenage Fanclub, unable to get a firm commercial foothold following “Bandwagonesque’s” brief moment in the sun, settled in for the long game.
“Here,” Teenage Fanclub’s tenth studio album, comes six years after “Shadows” and three decades after Blake and McGinley’s first meeting. While it’s not necessarily a fresh and innovative feat, the album displays confidence and maturity in its songwriting that only experience can bring. Having abandoned their liberal use of feedback and distortion at the turn of the century, the band now weaves addictive hooks and sweeping three-part vocal harmonies though their music with a delicate hand. The result is sincere and endearing.
Blake, McGinley and Love — splitting the songwriting duties yet again — approach the strikingly common themes of love and mortality with sensible elegance. Blake paints his sentiments in broad strokes. His bright, shimmering lines — “Isn’t life such a mystery / I’m in love with your love” — on the opening track exuberantly declare how simple passions can smooth the edges of life’s unexplainable nuances. The song’s straightforward structure, driving major chords and succinct melodic motifs exhibit warm simplicity to match his lucid lyrics. McGinley, on the other hand, is the band’s most introspective writer. He rolls with the nuance instead of over it. “Sit down by the fireside / I feel the energy inside her,” he ponders halfway through “Steady State.” With this simple reverie and the eerie layers melody that accompany it, McGinley illustrates the mysteries of love and connection in their beautifully chaotic natural condition.
The album also offers somber reflections on the passage of youth and the unrelenting pace of time. Blake, in “Connected to Life,” wistfully bemoans the notion of being “Alone in the end / Further and fading from life.” The track — a rolling and ominous acoustic piece — enviously examines youthful vitality from the melancholy perch of experience. On “I Have Nothing More to Say,” Gerard Love sputters, “I’ve been awake too long, and my head is overloaded” amidst softly lapping waves of phased synthesizers and jangly strings. The songwriters hold no illusions. They’re aging fast, moving ceaselessly towards a time when their capacity to make meaningful connections in art and relationships will vanish.
Fortunately, indie rock’s most overlooked underdogs haven’t disappeared yet. “Here” — though it doesn’t break new ground or reinvent the band — offers a compelling statement of purpose. The album proves that Blake, McGinley and Love will continue make music as long as they can still write honest and relevant material. It may not punch with the weight of “Bandwagonesque,” but it doesn’t need to. After all, the zeitgeist belongs to the kids. Teenage Fanclub is too old for that nonsense.
If you like: Big Star, Matthew Sweet, The Replacements
Favorite Tracks: “I Have Nothing More to Say,” “Connected to Life,” “I’m in Love”