Everything here has a place and a time
We’re only passing through
It’s no longer allowed in this country, no doubt for good reason, but back when I was a boy working on a farm over the summer, great excitement met the days when we would burn the stubble in recently harvested wheat and barley fields. There was an art to it, setting the fire according to wind direction, pitchforking the discarded stems to keep the fire moving along the harvested lines – and making sure that the fire didn’t jump up trees or into neighbouring fields or properties. Scorched by sun and fire, we youngsters – authorised fire raisers! – couldn’t get enough of it. The old boys would come down to lean on their pitchforks, quiet satisfaction in their eyes. I suspect that even before it was banned, farmers knew it didn’t add that much more to the soil than you would get by ploughing the stubble back in; but it was a seasonal ritual and joy to observe the leaping flames and, once they’d moved on, the blackened, smouldering earth left behind.
It’s one of the images I hold in mind as I listen to Bonfires on the heath, the new Clientele album, a personal conflation of its themes of harvest and bonfires. You have to hand it to Alasdair MacLean and the Clientele. For the fourth time in a row, they have written a set of songs and unified them across an album so that a discarded image or sound in one song is taken up and explored in greater detail in another. This time around it’s a return to nature, a reconnection with the seasons. Bats flit across moonlit skies, and from ‘Harvest time’ to ‘Share the night’; bonfires burn orange against the black of a moonless November night. Summer comes and goes, harvest festival marking its end, mostly unobserved, though in Alasdair’s lyrics and themes there is perhaps a tacit recognition of a secularist’s debt to an Anglican upbringing mixed in with the ghosts and pagan celebration. All that’s missing is pumpkins.
The opening trio of songs form the album’s core, leaving it a little top heavy. For ‘I wonder who we are’, they have infused the lightness and deliberately banal joy of a Tropicália-era Caetano Veloso song with their hallmark shot of estrangement. Then come those hues of autumn. ‘Bonfires on the heath’, as languid as anything the Clientele have recorded, though again, not without an underlying edge of restlessness – ‘how’m I going to get myself to sleep?’ ‘Harvest time’ is the dreamy psychedelic folk equal of the haunting song of more or less the same name on Michael Head’s The magical world of the Strands. The Clientele’s song searches for the point at which the impermanent – us human beings – meet with the permanent (or the more permanent) – the soil and the seasons – a point encapsulated in Alasdair’s image of watching scarecrows.
Beyond these three, ‘Sketch’ allows you to construct your own connections out of a whispered lyric of 25 apparently random words; the Clientele’s version of the tarot, perhaps. It’s a pity the music is so obviously redolent of sixties Hammond groove – with less archetypal musical accompaniment, we might have had a defining moment in the Clientele’s discography. ‘Three month summers’ is on the other hand gloriously archetypal Clientele, shot through with suburban light, the mood of the violet hour and plenty of strange geometry.
Bonfires on the heath has been billed as a return to the Clientele’s roots, which to some extent is true. Here’s ‘Graven Wood’, an early song written by Innes Phillips while he was still in the band, recast with added drone. The lyrics throughout are simpler, more youthful, less inclined to the abstract than Strange geometry. The closing song even begins ‘I’ve been walking in the park…’ which is to Alasdair MacLean as ‘Woke up this morning…’ is the to the blues. But this is a group who’ve written strings of musically rounded songs, and they cannot replicate the narrowness nor the edge of the three piece as it was when it first came to musical maturity. So the songs are softened by musical and lived experience – and by the presence of the member who wasn’t there at the outset. Mel’s teardrop piano, gently bowed violin and backing vocals soften the sound, and make it impossible for the Clientele to rediscover their jagged edge. The vast improvement in the way they have recorded their music over the years has allowed us to enter a sound world of compensating and rarely matched distinction, so that I tend not to miss Alasdair’s guitar heroics. Yet while this is again a beautifully recorded as well as perfectly autumnal record, it’s not one I feel quite able to set it alongside XTC’s Mummer, or The magical world of the Strands.
Alasdair has spoken of his doubts about the future of the Clientele. Despite the heights it reaches, Bonfires on the heath as a whole is slighter than the group’s previous albums. Maybe they have run out of ideas, and steam – a cover and the return to two earlier songs suggests that’s the case. I applaud any group who re-record an earlier song in an attempt to get something more or different out of it, but I don’t think the Clientele have succeeded with their second go at ‘Share the night’. Problem is, they nailed it first time around. I find myself wishing that they’d kept back the other songs from the That night, a forest grew EP for this LP, rather than nobly honouring their promise of three discs for Acuarela.
The last words of that closing song, ‘Walking in the park’, are: ‘With the darkness coming down / I don’t know what more I can say / what I can say’.
- ‘Bonfires on the heath’ – great film of the song played acoustically
- Bonfires on the heath – stream and US release (Merge)
- Bonfires on the heath – UK release (Pointy)
- The Clientele – MySpace