Album Review: The Clientele – I Am Not There Anymore

[Merge; 2023]

During the first half of the 2000s, there seemed to be an endless supply of guitar-driven indie bands flooding the musical landscape and collective consciousness of the hipster set alike. Many of these acts positioned themselves beneath the spotlight by providing a novel spin on a shared set of perennially fashionable influences (The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Galaxie 500, The Feelies, XTC), and more often than not, just as quickly as they ascended to a moment of relevancy and reverence, they tumbled right back down into the hole of obscurity, mostly due to the (now evident) lack of substance beneath their sheen. 

The Clientele were one of the few bands of this era to avoid such pitfalls and succeed by using the aforementioned artists as touchstones to spin a hazy, melancholic-yet-uplifting nostalgic sound that was very much their own. The English band, helmed by songwriter/lead vocalist/guitarist, Alasdair McClean, came onto the indie scene with the 2000 release of Suburban Light, which collected some of their earlier singles and was packaged as their debut full-length. The band’s fully-formed aesthetic displayed an affinity for the janglier, more whimsical psych outfits from several different decades, and lush, heart-rending arrangements. McClean’s hushed, romantic vocals evoked entire surrealistic worlds of sepia-toned evenings and soft lights stretching obliquely across the canvas, and he managed to tap into a seemingly universal memory that places the listener in a very specific place at a very specific time.

Over the course of the next few years, the band would release a string of albums, including The Violet Hour and Strange Geometry, to nearly universal acclaim. The chamber pop outfit would continue to explore variations of the gossamer vibe found on Suburban Light, but with more crisp production and increasingly complex song structures. As the 2010s arrived, so did an extended hiatus for the band, and in the ensuing 13 years, they would proffer their only full-length, Music for the Age of Miracles, in 2017 to a relatively tepid reception. 

One could be forgiven, then, for not holding out too much hope when considering the band’s new album, I Am Not There Anymore. Also damning, McClean has indicated that his band finally bought a computer, and that this has allowed them to weave more experimental, electronic flourishes into the compositions. In a move reminiscent of Portishead or My Bloody Valentine, however, The Clientele have returned late in their game with a gorgeous, stirring opus that reminds us of why a band like this can sustain such a rabid cult following. They have delivered on all fronts, and the expansion of their sound is subtle and tasteful enough to bolster the familiar elements that surround it. 

One needn’t look further than the stunning eight-minute opener “Fables of the Silverlink” for proof. The track begins with dual cellos sawing their way up and down a captivating melody. The strings are then joined by a crisp, stuttering breakbeat that utilizes backward handclaps, and McClean begins to croon in a low, almost unrecognizable register. The heady mix is disorienting until it’s flooded with live drums and McClean’s vocal inflections become unmistakably his, and then it’s clear that this is definitely The Clientele, and that they’ve never sounded better. The band cycles effortlessly through the labyrinthine soundscapes, and the eight minutes coast by in what seems like half the time.

McClean has specified that the quasi-meta inspiration behind I Am Not There’s title, as well as the album’s overarching lyrical content, is the uncanny feeling that comes with listening to a Clientele record. He’s stated, “What’s really been in all the Clientele records is a sense of not actually inhabiting the moment that your body is in.”

A somewhat cryptic sentiment infused with further darkness, as McClean also taps the specific memories surrounding his mother’s death in 1997. Despite all of this, the weighty content of unchecked pathos is rendered beautifully by the rich, often buoyant arrangements that adorn it, using elements of classical and jazz throughout. 

The music sprawls over the course of 77 minutes and 19 tracks. The longer pieces are broken up by smaller interludes, such as “Radial 2”, the one-minute track that follows “Fables” and cleanses the palate with a simple, wandering piano line. Elsewhere, some of the shorter, off-kilter skits like “Conjuring Summer” elicit the whimsical moments of artists from the Ghost Box label, or suggest a loose affiliation with the Elephant Six collective. The instrumentals are what McClean considers moments of necessary respite between the album’s heavier, headier content. 

And heavier and headier the album becomes. “Garden Eye Theory” comprises a hazy hip hop beat played on live drums, McClean’s reverbed-out Morricone-esque guitar slinking, all manner of shaken percussion, bongo drums, and bright orchestral swells. By the time McClean’s voice joins the simmering psychedelic groove, it almost sounds like a jam from a Mutations-era Beck. He even waxes poetic about hatchbacks and glowing cigarette ends. 

Later, the stately, mid-tempo “Lady Grey”, featuring elegant cellos and insistent piano plinks, sounds like it could’ve been taken from Suburban Light or The Violet Hour. It also explores the aforementioned themes of memories of his childhood and of his mother, as McClean sings, “All the beautiful things are opaque, Lady Grey.” This is followed by “Dying in May”, an uptempo number saturated with syncopated hand percussion (evidence of the singer’s stated admiration for Miles Davis’ On the Corner), and McClean repeats, “Oh, sister, won’t you go back to the flowers?” as a mantra throughout the song’s duration.

If there is one drawback to the album, it’s that it’s an awfully long time to inhabit such an inexplicable headspace. The quality is first-rate throughout, but when measured against their comparatively lean earlier offerings – the run from Suburban Light to Strange Geometry – well, it’s tempting to wonder if the skits were cut out and the tracklist was a couple of songs shorter, how that final product might sound. Also, the album is a wholly enveloping experience, and given McClean’s more pointed lyrics surrounding specific childhood memories and, more importantly, his mother’s death, listening to almost 80 minutes straight could leave a lot of listeners emotionally exhausted. 

Despite this grievance, lovers of melancholic, symphonic guitar pop should not miss out on this listen. The band have returned in full force with a wealth of treasures to dig through on this release. They continue to mesmerize and mystify while adding elements of electronica, instrumental hip hop, modern classical, and Soon Over Babaluma-era Can to elevate the groove and add a new sense of urgency to the proceedings. Against all odds, The Clientele have come back together after years spent apart, and they have managed to recapture  the magic that permeated their best material and made it so imminently replayable. This is a bold move that should be celebrated, and more importantly, it should be emulated.