Man-Made, the title of Teenage Fanclub’s new album, could refer to the artificiality of pop. Or it could be a reference to the fact that the band members—most of whom first played together nearly 20 years ago as the Boy Hairdressers—are now looking at 40. I suspect the latter, because the implications of maturity and craftsmanship finally seem to have overwhelmed any joys that came from reveling in the former.
What makes a man in his late 30s chase perfection? Not necessarily ambition, though that’s certainly part of the problem. What we’re after here is the reason men—and it’s almost always men—begin to idealize the past so much that they view history as a blueprint. For them, power pop is the music of choice (though alt-country will do in a pinch), and they can get positively misty relating how such-and-such focused the Byrds through a Black Flag– ground lens. In other words, the idealizers like pop music that isn’t popular, whose happy harmonies and soaring choruses still imply the sadness of being overlooked and left behind. It’s the perfect soundtrack for a life about to head into Act 2 without an intermission.
Looking backward without shame is one of the joys of getting older, of course. And Teenage Fanclub has been growing beardy in public ever since the Glasgow, Scotland– based quartet burst onto the music scene with the rip-snorting, guitar-torturing 1990 single “Everybody’s Fool,” a bitter-guy-who-never-went-to-college dis of trust-fund rebels with lyrics like “You say you’ve taken lots of drugs/You really must be hip.” Even then, when the rhythms were loping and the harmonies ragged, you knew the band members had spent plenty of time admiring music history’s frozen moments of jangle and regret. The Beatles, the Byrds, Big Star—the Fannies loved them all, and the last was even given overt homage on 1991’s Bandwagonesque.
Man-Made is Teenage Fanclub’s first album in five years and eighth overall. The sounds it contains are enough to make you wonder if the band members have just realized how much they hate seeing themselves in their fans. These are guys in thick-framed glasses and Vandykes who worship Big Star making music for guys in thick-framed glasses and Vandykes who worship Big Star—probably ones who’ve recently realized that having a family and a mortgage and grilling out on the weekends isn’t quite the death sentence they once thought. It’s not that the new material is dark (though it is). It’s that the songwriting seems to be eating its own tail in a slow-motion frenzy of self-doubt and fear of decline.
Released from commercial relevance stateside sometime around 1995’s Grand Prix, Teenage Fanclub wisely set about turning itself into an institution at home, where getting older is often a worse crime than murder. (Seriously: The average British prison sentence for taking a life is 12 years. Being an ex-member of Del Amitri is forever.) The group’s three songwriters grew up punk enough to know that people who can play guitar really well are not to be trusted, and now that they’ve developed into excellent players and arrangers, they’ve had to find a credible way to wring all that punk energy from their music. The rough strategy seems to have been working in miniature—that is, finding ever more lovely ways to make their exquisite influences dance on the head of a pin.
At the beginning of the record, guitarist Norman Blake sings, “Everything’s illusion, and I flatter to deceive/My life is going fast, it’s make-believe.” Then things go over the hill fast. Fellow six-stringer Raymond McGinley soon chimes in with “Nowhere,” whose peppy chorus goes: “I’m alive and I’m alone/I love this life and all it’s shown.” By the time Blake’s “Cells” rolls around, seven tracks in, not even a loud burst of psychedelic guitar can ameliorate the air of impending doom. The song, which is about the body’s “slow decay” and sports the pleasant chorus “Breakin’ down/Cells breakin’ down/Breakin’ down/No, no, no,” goes nowhere, despite its artful accumulation of detail. Consider its circular melody musical proof of a key line: “It’s ever onward to the grave.”
Given Blake’s current obsessions, it’s up to the other two songwriters to keep our collective heads out of the oven. Bassist Gerard Love’s “Fallen Leaves,” the album’s single, is classic Fanclub, a lovely piece about love blossoming that dares you to hope a little bit. And McGinley’s album-closing “Don’t Hide” ends with a repeated “I didn’t know my life was wrong until the right person came along,” suggesting that maybe he’s found an Act 2 of his own and that, just as St. Alex Chilton once wrote, it’s “never too late to start.” They’re, yes, perfect pop songs. They’re also full of the good-natured cheekiness that has always been a band hallmark, from the jaunty organ line in “Hide” to the fake-metal guitar interjections in “Leaves” to the almost conversational way the words are delivered in both.
Such moments are rare on Man-Made, however, and they’re almost always overpowered by the album’s tone of accomplished hopelessness. Pin it on getting older, but save some blame for John McEntire’s production, which somehow manages to suck out whatever life might have remained in these songs, rendering the guitars as plodding metronomes and creating a mix that’s way too heavy on drums and vocals. You’d think the warm, clear tone he coaxes from the proceedings would help, but it doesn’t. In fact, thinking about how much vintage equipment must have gone into creating this vintage-sounding record just makes it seem sadder. At some point, you have to wonder whether making albums like this one isn’t the equivalent of building boats in bottles: a skillful, studied way to while away the time, but not necessarily something you want to share with strangers.
Then again, the Pernice Brothers create tiny little masterpieces of influence-husbandry that would look mighty fine on anyone’s mantel. Holbrook, Mass., native Joe Pernice, the only member of his family in the group, used to make alt-country with the Scud Mountain Boys and now specializes in a pastiche of puffy-sleeved ’60s pop such as Love, mascara-streaked ’80s pop such as Echo and the Bunnymen, and sincerely ironic ’90s pop such as, well, Teenage Fanclub.
Pernice has a touch of gray in his cartoonish beard and a way with the language appropriate for a guy who, in addition to quite a few records, has a book of poetry and a novella under his presumably expanding belt. “Overload on ‘Let’s Get Lost’/ Scratched your farewell couplet in my window frost,” he sketches on the album opener, “There Goes the Sun,” summoning the doomed but playful spirits of both Chet Baker and Elliott Smith as well as the never-ending winter of his native state. Pernice’s lyrics are emphatically visual, making the everyday moments of life and relationships that he focuses on seem universal and hopeful, even as they, too, home in on decline.
“In each life a quiet hell/Half a million scripts you can never sell,” Pernice sings in the skittery, subdued “My So-Called Celibate Life.” And sure, his characters’ dreams of literary fame are slowly dying, but the comforts of hipster living—cigarettes, foreign films, vintage synthesizers—cushion the blow. In the surprisingly unjangly “Sell Your Hair,” a perhaps unconscious nod to Pavement, the narrator asks a significant other to stay with him to ring in the new year and “smoke until this pack is done,” reminding her that the “outcome’s as bright as the prism from ice on the welcome mat.”
But like his hero Morrissey, Pernice finds the humor in being such a miserable young coot, a fact hammered home by the cheery production, a happy gathering ground of breathy vocals, swooping slide guitars, and cheesy organs. Just because your life didn’t turn out the way you thought it might, he seems to be saying, doesn’t mean you have to be a grump about it.CP