There’s a danger in nostalgia. As the economies of the world tighten around the throats of those who can least afford it, as we leave a month with 21 of the hottest 30 days ever recorded on the planet, and as we witness the inevitable implosion of late stage capitalism, there’s a pervading cultural discourse which seems to be reflecting on how good things were in the 1990s. The recent re-emergence of Pulp and Blur from under whichever rock it is that hosts Britpop bands is testament to this, as is the proliferation of Nirvana t-shirts in high street fashion shops and cargo pants inexplicably becoming a “thing” again. The past viewed through the rose tinted glasses of temporal distance almost certainly always brings a false sense of what those times were truly about.
Madder Rose’s sixth studio album wallows in a sense of space and place, yet always with a spiritual purpose that reaches beyond the superficial nature of nostalgia. The 10 songs that make up No One Gets Hurt Ever spiral in melancholic displays of hurt and rejection, reflecting on heartache and journeys of love with a fixation on the impending grief that comes as a result.
Formed in 1991, New York’s Madder Rose are purveyors of the downside of love, a celebration of exquisite possibility that makes being alive worth it, despite the all too common conclusions reached. Their Velvet Underground influenced form of shoegaze is present and correct, as is Billy Cote’s love for country tinged guitar lines that float sorrowfully across tracks like spectral beings rather than obvious participants.
When Mary Lorson opens the album with the line “Another day of looking backward / Another day to fall apart” the tone is set. The first track, “Tangerine”, is about a soul being set free, no longer weighed down with worries and the strains of every day life. As the song progresses, Lorson’s background vocals become more central in the mix, and their ghostly presence imbues the song with a wistful sense of acceptance of a sense of letting go, of the beauty and transience of things.
An air of wistfulness is the central tie that connects all of the tracks. The gently propulsive “What Do You Know About My Lover?” features a quietly distressed violin loop from Laura Cannell that adds a wandering element to the album’s most understated song. It’s a gentle lullaby, as is “Bird (Splinters)” which uses the simplest of nursery rhyme traditions of anthropomorphising small creatures to detail the burning pain of the human condition. Both tracks share a knack that Madder Rose have somehow managed throughout their career – the ability to produce songs which sound comfortable in their familiarity, yet are never derivative. Anyone who has heard “While Away” from the band’s majestic 1993 debut album Bring It Down will know exactly what I mean; a nagging feeling that you’re heard the song somewhere before, somehow.
No One Gets Hurt Ever contains some of Billy Cote’s most plaintive and concise song writing. It’s a succinct record, but even in its 36 minute run time there are moments of transgression where the band highlight how they have developed as people and musicians. The only Lorson composition on the record is the exquisite “MLMR” which is the very definition of beautiful fragility (and maybe stands for Mary Lorson, Madder Rose). Lorson has said that while Billy Cote was busy writing the songs that make up the album “I didn’t feel much music during the pandemic. I learned some simple tunes to play at the nursing home where my mother spent her last months, and that was about all the music I could muster…” With that knowledge, “MLMR” feels like a gift. There are washes of guitar over a strummed acoustic while there are mutterings and murmurings rather than words, yet the emotions behind the sounds are clear. It’s an exceptional moment of the record.
Where their earlier albums showcased a range of styles and influences, including raucous guitars, No One Gets Hurt Ever feels more assured in its trajectory. “City Rain” feels like it could easily sit on their 1994 album Panic On with its focus on wet streets and a love for a city that doesn’t love you back. It feels like a sister piece to “What Holly Sees” in its observational reportage of the mundane as precious. “If I Drift Away” is as delicately introspective as anything from 2019’s glorious comeback record To Be Beautiful, while album closer “I Want a New Me (girlghostboyghost)” leaves us on something of a Motown-tinged pop high.
There is absolutely not a weak link on the album, even though some songs take a little longer than others to settle in the brain. A case in point is “Lou Mystery”, which brings all four original members of the band together and sees Matt Verta-Ray and Lorson duet. This is Cote wearing his love for Velvet Underground on his sleeve like never before (the title being not too far away from Lou Mr Reed can’t be by chance, friends), and the song is best summed up the loose drumming from Rick Kubic that sounds both overly languid (half-arsed even) but also entirely controlled. From press statements, it’s clear that this is Cote’s favourite ever Madder Rose song, yet it’s thorny compared to everything else on the record. That’s not to say it isn’t wonderful, it just takes a little while to appreciate it, while the tracks that sit around it are much more immediate. Therein lies the beauty of the band in general.
As with the release of To Be Beautiful, there seem to be no plans at present to get the band back on the road (c’mon, Primavera – get your chequebook out, ffs!), which feels like the only real shame of Madder Rose being back and making wonderful music together again. Despite the whimsical and melancholic longing of the songs, this isn’t nostalgia for the sake of anything other than creative expression. This band deserves a much wider audience, so go wallow in No One Gets Hurt Ever and swim in the musical current that’s strong enough to make you spin your arms in a wild rotation… if you know you know.