Singer Stuart Staples’ clipped East Midlands baritone croon, draped in those alt-lounge arrangements in which it sounds so at home, casts him in the role of a Nottinghamshire Gainsbourg, spinning barroom tales of desire and loss as he works his way through a packet of Lamberts and a crate of IPA. Staples is interested in effects, not causes — in sore heads, sore throats, and sore bits, in the way lust and boredom distort and arrange reality, highlighting risk and danger as lewd protuberances from a brown, decaying canvas. We glimpse the first-person flâneur of these ballad-narratives piecemeal, as if through smoke — paunchy but charming; geeky but not bookish; absolutely ravenous for luxury. This is Baudelaire’s metaphysical dandy recast as a second-rate chest-wigged club singer of the pre-punk 70s. He traces a distinctive arc. Trist with androgynes; perv after strangers; quaff Cointreau; listen to John Barry; munch custard creams; mourn the ravages of time. In the right circumstances, there is no reason why this cannot all be achieved before closing time. For the Staplean dandy, these acts are no more than symbols of the rogue-ish superiority of his mind.
There are those who will argue that such chanson yarns are little more than legislated nostalgia, part and parcel of a narrow British tradition of wry indie classicists for whom Scott 4 and The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society represent moments of Enlightenment, whose reverberations can still be heard in a quartet of 90s mini-classics: the postmodern satires of Modern Life Is Rubbish; the bedsit blues of If You’re Feeling Sinister; the Bacharach-baroque of A Short Album About Love; maybe most gloriously, the verdurous picaresque We Love Life. Perhaps this is not so much a tradition as a temperament, brought on by the gloom of the shadows cast by the 40s and the 60s, of the fall of the British Empire and the failure of post-war dreams of social democracy. It is often morose, and usually lovelorn; it has an essential folkiness, despite its big band affectations; it is decisively ironic: it enacts a revival while lamenting its secret uselessness. It offers us pop under a pall, a folklore wherein swinging becomes a function of sadness. Indeed, The Something Rain is a death jive slowed to a macabre wiggle, snakehipped shipping clerks frowning beneath red lights.
There is a peculiar, miserable nationalism here, eccentric and wise — Will Oldham’s time telescope jarred some six thousand kilometers east, towards the hazy outline of a velours brut style. What could, in the UK, pass for a Village Green continuum, but could conceivably go by a number of different names in a number of different national contexts, is at heart an outsider patriotism. It is a patriotism that largely swerves sectarian clumsiness because it is rooted in an introspective register: here, an egotist’s fatalism counting against him; there, a hedonist’s solipsism losing sight of the exits. It deals in buried dreams and realized desires; actual pain; false hope. Despite the baggage, this is not spectral music, but pop itching at the rash of the nation. Like smoke, it clings to your clothes and your skin, clogs pores and throats. Its funereal funk can be hard to shake off; its catchiest hooks stain and discolor.