In a music world weakened this year by the untimely loss of Alex Chilton, what better way to celebrate his legacy than with a new album by Teenage Fanclub. Not that they have egregiously copied, but with a discography full of nods to the Big Star icon (2005’s “Feel” being the most recent), novelty isn’t a trait one would readily assign to the veteran Scottish quartet. What they’ve done with Chilton’s combination of power-pop and baroque raw materials, however, has been quite innovative. Both Grand Prix (1995) and Songs from Northern Britian (1997) put the day’s haughty Britpop through Ramones-style rigor and simplicity, while the tour-de-force Bandwagonesque (1991) reminded an American music scene, otherwise consumed by grunge, of the power of sugary sweet hooks and harmony. But with that genre-du-jour of the 90s over with and the “everything goes” attitude of our new millennium upon us, they have found increasingly less to rub up against. So devoid of cultural foil, Teenage Fanclub’s challenge became to survive in these times without contrast.
Like its Merge Records debut, the underrated Man-Made (2005), Teenage Fanclub’s new album Shadows, is a mature affair that retains few of the signatures that made them one of the most beloved bands of the 90s. Like never before, the band’s trio of songwriters — Norman Blake, Raymond McGinky, and Gerard Love — have woven together 12 songs fraught with twilight, regret, and hope. On the woe-laden retrospective ballad “The Fall,” they confess, “The leaves on the trees shield my eyes from the sun/ But the leaves that I see they won’t be there for long/ I light a fire beneath what I want/ I won’t feel sad only warmed by their loss.” Uncharacteristically led by piano, “Dark Clouds” takes a similar step from the fore, finding hope in the disintegration of things: “Dark clouds are following you, they’ll drift away/ I’ve watched the night turning into the day.”
Shadows, however, is hardly a nostalgia piece; rather, it’s a subtle progression toward the jaunty restraint of The Go-Betweens’ latter albums. “Sometimes I Don’t Need to Believe in Anything” opens the album with two-chord, jangle pop bliss. Its chorus is a tonal ascension that could easily have gone for bigger hooks, but instead aspires toward clarity, adding insistence and character to the vocals. Such moments are so ubiquitous on Shadows that, fair or not, we cease to see Teenage Fanclub as an anti-hero musical phenomenon and find something organic and every bit as vital as bands 15 years younger.
Aside from the eye-rolling lyrics that detract from the tuneful rocker “When I Still Have Thee,” the band’s gentleness in exploring the twangy elements broached in the second half of the album is a source of frustration. The 15-second spaghetti-western bridge in “The Past” beautifully juxtaposes Northern British crooning with Morricone-esque desolation, but it then descends back into a pleasant but excruciatingly ordinary mid-pace ballad. Only “Sweet Days of Waiting” and “The Back of My Mind” truly indulge this direction with morose Glaswegian-flavored, southern rock. Pedal steel, it turns out, mates wonderfully with Teenage Fanclub’s newfound sense of pondering and expression.
Unlike Alex Chilton, Teenage Fanclub came to know genuine mainstream fame for a time. With appearances on SNL, cover shots in Spin magazine, and a major label contract, they achieved many of the things that, save influence, Big Star couldn’t. Armed with louder guitars, lustier harmonies, and a music scene contextually primed for their arrival, they were the darlings of alternative music, heralded in style and ignored in substance. Yet with the passage of time and particularly with the release of Shadows, Teenage Fanclub have taken a hauntingly Chiltonian step from the light. Immersed now in nature, memories, and the ghosts that swell in and out of their music, the band’s trajectory has moved closer to that of their inspirational forebear. Lacking the hooks and spirit of subversion that framed most of their previous efforts, the songs of Shadows require patience and understanding to reveal oft-hidden strength of voice within.