Illustration titled "My Mother!" from Charles Sylvester's Journey Through Bookland, 1922
The Clientele are back with another album of dreamy pop songs, one that frontman Alisdair MacLean has said may be the band's last. I didn't pick up Bonfires on the Heath right away when it came out - I was still grooving on their singles collection Suburban Light. I think I was also afraid that the new album would be a let-down - for me, the Clientele teeter on the tightrope between coma-inducingly beautiful and just plain coma-inducing. I've never bought their debut album, The Violet Hour because the one time I listened to it my blood pressure dropped to dangerously low levels. And I was worried that MacLean's portentous hintings might point to a band running out of steam.
But my concerns with Bonfires on the Heath were largely unfounded - it's a qualified success, on par with their last album God Save the Clientele (I rate 2005's Strange Geometry as their only real unqualified success.) Everyone's calling it an "autumnal" record, probably because of the imagery of the title and cover illustration (i.e. lady made of dried flowers), and I bought it just in time to miss autumn entirely, but I find that the album has a pleasant, chilly wintriness to it as well. The re-recorded Clientele chestnut "Graven Wood" has this feel to it, as does the pristine "Jennifer and Julia". Things warm up a little with nice trumpet in the latter song, which turn up again to good effect on side-two highlights "Share the Night" and "I Know I Will See Your Face". A few upbeat songs bring some actual heat, like the straight-up pop song "Never Anyone But You" (which pulls off the trick of being overlong without seeming overlong) and the opener "I Wonder Who We Are".
I know that I've harped on this issue in a lot of recent "reviews", but the big problem with Bonfires on the Heath is in the sequencing. I think good album sequencing may be becoming a lost art as the album form becomes further diminished by technology, but that's a pretentious essay for another day. MacLean makes the mistake here of putting the album's two boring songs as Track 2 and Track 3 - the album's title track would be okay on its own, but following it with the leaden "Harvest Time" really puts a millstone around the album's neck. It throws some very valid criticisms of the band right in your face in a way that's hard to recover from. And it's not that the Clientele's down-tempo songs are all oppressively somnolent. The gentle "Tonight" is one of the album's best songs - a cover of a song by a Swedish band called Evergreen Days, it benefits greatly from Mel Draisey's backing vocals, particularly the wordless cooing over the verses. I'm listening to it now, and I think I feel myself falling into one of those good comas.
"Tonight" by the Clientele