By Paul Laird @mildmanneredmax
Twenty years ago.
The dawning of a new era.
Let’s all meet up in the year 2000.
Youth and young adulthood.
We were all moving on, the promise of the nineties being replaced by the realities of the noughties.
The day-glo nonsense of a world where bands like Bis could make it onto prime time television without having released a record and where Menswe@r could get a record deal on the length of their trousers was fading and in its place came something darker and more unsettling than any of us could have dreamed.
I didn’t know it but I was also in the early stages of saying goodbye to things that I had only recently been introduced to…a love affair masquerading as a relationship and my faith. Those farewells would be painful and long. Drawn out. They would leave wounds which haven’t healed even after all this time.
Sleeper were saying goodbye too.
Goodbye to Sleeper.
Goodbye to music.
Goodbye to the things that had bound them, to the things that had propelled them onto magazine front covers, festival stages, Top of the Pops and the bedroom walls of teenagers up and down the country.
Goodbye to all that.
Say hello to writing and researching and lecturing and family and children and, whisper it, a normal life. Click, off, gone.
At the same time though there were lyrics, music, melodies…half finished songs, fragments of things that could have been magical if only they could stay together for a moment longer. But they couldn’t and so in-between the cushions of life slipped those little shards of wonder. Beside the buttons, the fluff, the loose change.
Things that could have been but that now never would.
A tragedy…but not, because we can’t mourn the things, or people, we didn’t know existed.
Then came “The Modern Age” an album that reminded us all why they mattered so much in the first place and that, no matter what the cultural dead end residents of Nostalgia Crescent will tell you, is the very best thing they ever did do.
Now though comes something possibly even more remarkable than new music. Old music that is new.
These are the songs from the farewell.
As Louise told me when we discussed the album “There are songs Andy and I wrote together in our attic post-Sleeper split. Tracks demoed by Jon who’d run away to live in LA by this time. Songs that were part of a solo album that I’d began making. Never finished.”
What do old songs from a complicated and difficult time in the life of a band sound like? Joyful.
But the most incredible thing about the songs gathered here, songs that were simply sketches twenty years ago, is that they sound fresh, vital, contemporary and urgent. This is not an album for the collectors, for the completists or the revisionists…this is an album for today, in so many ways.
It is genuinely thrilling when “Tell Me Where You’re Going” starts with Louise Wener mumbling “2, 3, 4…” before a pulsing bass line pushes things forwards and drags us into something gently anthemic. There is something grand and eloquent happening here…something delicate and intimate at the same moment. “Don’t go to sleep, there’s nobody out there, waiting for me.” Louise whispers, but she’s being dishonest because she is there. They are there. The songs are there. It’s sublime is what it is. A song about being lost and lonely, about being disconnected and frustrated…and who among us can’t relate to that?
The current revival of interest in Britpop has, sadly, come to be dominated by a narrative that suggests it was about bending the knee to The Beatles, downing pints, doing the white line and swaggering around like Kathy Burke in that “Kevin and Perry” sketch. There is much talk of “real music” which is code for a lumpen, moribund, vision of pop music as rock sans roll. Thankfully Sleeper, like the very best bands from the era, were never about those things, stood in direct opposition to them, and on “Let’s Start a Fire” and “Goodbye Things to Do” they present weird, wonky, woozy and wondrous slices of slinky pop that will have bucket hats being flung to the ground in bafflement. Like the apes at the start of Kubrick’s “Space Odyssey” when confronted by the obelisk. These are songs of such delicate heartbreaking splendour that only the delicate and heartbroken will ever really understand them. Quite what those boys, and it will be boys, will make of something like “Cab Song” is impossible to imagine…I’m saying nothing other than I adore it, which should say everything.
Louise is best placed to describe the album as a whole; “There’s joy and 90s exuberance on this record: strings, brass sections proper choruses. But it’s also a love letter of sorts. It was written in a period of our life when we were each saying goodbye to music. Each of us a little lost. Each in a slightly different way. Planning a future that felt unknowable. And perhaps that’s a tiny fraction of what we all feel at the moment.”
The old songs, the big hits, the records we fell in love with Sleeper because of will always hold a special place in people’s hearts, that is as it should be. But, truthfully, I listen to “The Modern Age” more than anything else they have done. I’ve already listened to “This Time Tomorrow” more than anything else by anyone this year. Songs like “Will There’s a Way”, “We Should Be Together”, “Cinderella” and “Hard Hat” are the sort of soothing balm that all our troubled souls stand in need of right now.
They said goodbye once and, thankfully, it wasn’t farewell.