The Clientele - "I Wonder Who We Are" (Bonfires on the Heath)
England’s Clientele are a group who have found their sound, and are sticking to it. Lest you think that’s damning them with faint praise, let it be said straight away – there are few pop groups as endlessly seductive as the Clientele. With Bonfires on the Heath, by my measure their most holistic album, if not quite their most stunning (that award still goes to Strange Geometry), they’ve reached a point similar to that of their friends Damon & Naomi – having clearly and questingly set out their universe on earlier records, they’re now able to unassumingly realise the potency of their chosen language.
A good deal of the Clientele’s charm is to do with nostalgia, through the combined visions of leader Alasdair Maclean’s lyrics and the group’s arrangements. Lines like “kids all jump in bonfires on the heath” or “late October, sunlight in the wood,” both from the album’s title track, manage to perfectly capture the autumnal poise and wistful memory work at play in their songs. Elsewhere they may break into a slight sweat, as on “Sketch” or the darker climes of “Graven Wood,” but overwhelmingly the mood of Bonfires of the Heath is an almost resigned grace, reinforced by the way each instrument seems to thread or knit its way around each song’s theme – guitars that knit and pearl like the Arts and Crafts Movement; piano embellishments that float out of the instrument’s resonating body; the quiet drones and strings that purr and wheeze through “Harvest Time.”
The Clientele still feel like the inheritors of Felt’s throne, as far as quietly considered, slightly arch pop goes, though Alasdair Maclean’s lyrics replace Lawrence from Felt’s drollness with a misty-eyed, vaguely articulated mysticism, generally communicated via natural metaphors or part-complete personality portraits. But they’re also great eulogists of London’s (and England’s) heart, and Bonfires on the Heath is a good reminder that complex aesthetic peregrinations of the city’s alleyways and histories are not only the provenance of fifth-rate isolationists or cryptic theory fetishists. Rather, like Saint Etienne, the Clientele invoke an imagined, romantic vision of the city by distilling its charm in the haziness of their sound and the observational asides inherent to both group’s lyrics. It’s another lovely album in an almost unequalled run of lovely albums.