Though the album is filled with songs that began life with working titles based on characters from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, I’m happy to report that The It Girl contains no scenes of gratuitous graphic violence and that Louise Wener is much better at character development than the aforementioned highly overrated film director.
When considering The It Girl in retrospect, I find it unsurprising that none of the wise men of the British music media predicted that Louise Wener would someday become a novelist or co-writer of a BBC radio programme. They were too busy covering Louise-as-sex-object and trying to get their teeny little heads around the concept of a woman who was both “frontman” and lead songwriter instead of trying to engage her in intelligent dialogue about how she created the impressive collection of mini-novellas and character sketches that comprise the content of The It Girl.
Coping with the misogynistic nature of the music business proved to be quite the challenge, as Louise explained in a 2021 interview with James McMahon:
McMahon: There’s old footage on YouTube where you’re being interviewed by Ralf Little. He basically says he used think of you and wank. And there’s a clip of Chris Evans interviewing you on TFI Friday where he basically says he’d like to shag you. I’m not naïve enough to be surprised by any of this, but I am interested to know what you felt like during these incidents, and if you ever felt you could complain to anyone afterwards or even during?
Wener: I know you raise this question with the best of intentions, but I get asked this often and, in some ways, answering it feels like continuing a narrative. Women in music reflecting on how they were patronized and objectified. I mean how does anyone think it felt? I could write chapters on it. Or nothing at all. The pressure was immense. You did the shows with the bullshit presenters. The cover shoots where the ignorant photographer would try, and fail, to get you to undo an extra button. You accepted the indie press would call for you to be burnt as a witch and that ‘right-on’ dicks in Dr Martens would write articles calling you a ‘madam’ or a ‘tart’. Or the engine stalled. You were difficult, mouthy and outspoken. Women were breaking new boundaries in the 90s. Staking our claim to an industry that didn’t belong to us. It was compromise. A complex navigation that we were making up as we went along. And no one had our back.
The salient point here is that a human being was diminished and denied the respect she deserved for her artistic talent simply because women are generally valued for their beauty and not for their brains.
This review is more about balancing the scales than engaging in what threatened males call a “feminist rant.” I feel I’m qualified to accomplish that mission because of my sterling record of impartiality regarding gender and music criticism. Let the record show that I have blasted the crap out of female artists who have put out what I have deemed crap. Alanis Morrissette. The Spice Girls. Justine Frischmann. Janis Joplin. I am an equal opportunity crap finder!
The band is in serious kick-ass mode for the explosive opening track, “Lie Detector.” Louise doesn’t even make it through the opening line before the sole accompaniment of distorted guitar chords enters the scene. This sparse arrangement continues throughout the first verse before the band goes full blast on the second with deeply satisfying bass from Diid Osman and punk-like drum bashes from Andy Maclure. Jon Stewart adds delightful waves of arpeggiated guitar to intensify the choruses, and believe it or not, the band ramps up the energy even further for the grand finale, ending the performance at peak power.
Sleeperblokes, my ass! “Lie Detector” is one of the best pure rock performances to come out of the Britpop scene.
I don’t think Louise gave herself enough credit when quoted in reference to “Lie Detector” that the song is “about how women are stereotyped and put into boxes, and not allowed to escape the way they were originally viewed. Once people have decided who you are, you’re there forever.” While all that is true, “Lie Detector” also highlights a trait common to both genders: the fear of intimacy and the risks involved in getting close to someone.
The lead character is actually male—a male who runs through various stereotyped models of womankind as if he’s shopping for a car but has a hard time deciding which model is right for him:
She’s a movie star arrangement
Got a touch of Bergman to her face
She wears suits and buys him flowers
Smokes his cigarettes and bakes him cakes
He says uh oh I love you
But I’m not sure I trust you
You seem strange to me
Not happy with what’s behind Door #1, he samples Door #2, where he finds an “it girl” who “reads all Dostoyevsky’s household tips.” Apparently the combination of brains and beauty doesn’t make him want to whip his skippy, so he takes a stab at Door #3 where he finds no beauty but plenty of brains (“She’s got long hair but she’s ugly/Got a touch of Einstein to her brain”) and best of all, “People say she’s easy all the same.”
Nope. Won’t do. None of the broads passed his personal polygraph test:
How come everyone suspects her
Attach her to a lie detector
Watch a thousand housewives fizz and burn
And every time she answers yes
The needles on his polygraph test
Just go round in circles like his brain
By this time, Monty Hall has had it with this loser, and so has Louise. In a glorious song-ending rant with the band pushing ahead at full speed, Louise lets him fucking have it:
It took a thousand cliches just to scold her
Took a man from Stepford and a tape recorder
Got his ego broken, so crestfallen
You made a start, you made us laugh
Stop it. You’re a grown man baby
It’s just that your head’s no good
I would add, “and never will be” as long as he’s determined to find his ill-defined vision of the ideal woman . . . because there’s no such thing as an ideal woman.
An eerie synth-laden minor key introduction gives way to the thumping bass and rough guitar of “Sale of the Century,” a Wener-Maclure composition. Louise shared her motivation behind the lyrics with Timothy White of Billboard: “Love makes you a little insane, yet rationality always kicks in. Dreamy persistence fascinates me, but so does powerlessness, ruined lives, and people who can’t or don’t get what they want.”
In other words, modern human beings suck at mating rituals.
I interpret Louise’s use of the word “love” to mean “sexual relations,” for the couple depicted in the song has little else going for them other than “we both share the people we hate.” I don’t believe the term “friends with benefits” had been coined back in the 90s, but it seems that’s where our amorous pair wound up:
We step through London
The streets holding on to us
We’ll stand where the river bends
I hope we fall in
So this time maybe
Let’s take a photograph
We’ll burn all the negatives
I hope we fall in
Its never gonna be this good so just climb in
How long till reason makes us small again?
And it feels just like we just got started
It’s still you
Taking me under
Pretend to be scared
Then decide that we don’t care
Wear ourselves out on the way down
What’s nice about the relationship is that both parties were honest from the get-go. Neither was what the other wanted, but they figured they could shag for a while and have a few laughs:
It’s still you
And the moment you met me you said I was cheap
You were the sale of the century
Creased ourselves up on the way down
What I don’t hear in the song is “powerlessness” or “ruined lives,” so I assume that Louise had moved from the specific to the general in her conversation with Mr. White. The uplift from the E minor key in the verses to the G major complement in the choruses communicates “well, it’s better than nothing” as opposed to remorse. The bridge is also notable for the surprising introduction of a C-Eb-G chord pattern and the marvelous line, “It’s been too long, so it could just be something we ate,” reinforcing the shared awareness that the relationship is more of a diversion than one that might lead to broken hearts.
“What Do I Do Now” does lead to a broken heart, and part of what makes the song special is how Louise combines a vivid third-person narrative with the losing party’s internal dialogue to form a rich storyline in contrast to the tired and worn first-person “I lost my baby, boo-hoo” schtick:
Quickly she came, dressed up for fame,
Riding her perfume downstairs.
Make-up like glue, she danced ’round the room,
To the sound of the corduroy flares.
Let’s go to town, taxis all ’round,
We could stop for a couple of beers.
He looks at it all, stifles a yawn,
She tries not to look like she cares.
What do I do now?
Are we going under?
What did I do wrong?
I thought we had it sorted
Out the other day
Maybe I’m just stupid
Can’t we try again?
No one told me it was raining.
Can’t face a club,
They walk to a nearby pub,
Watch a couple of bands.
Draining the glass, they walk home at last,
Reaching for each other’s hands.
Nothing is said, he goes to bed
Dreaming of her on his own.
She stays up all week, watching him sleep,
Scared that she’ll wake up alone.
She then tries to imagine life without him, revealing her utter dependence and how deeply her sense of identity is intertwined with his: “I’ll miss you every day of your life/And maybe when you’re dead, I’ll get some rest/From holding onto you.”
In the final round of the chorus, the poor lost lass wonders “Is there someone else?” and, more poignantly, “Was it when I said I wanted to have children?” Both questions confirm the woman suffers from deep self-deprecation; either she’s not good enough or it’s all her fault. And though she tries to let him go, her dependence wins out in the end:
Tore up all your photos,
Didn’t feel too clever,
Spent the whole of Sunday
Sticking you together.
Now I’d like to call you,
But I feel too awkward.
Some things need explaining,
No-one told me it was raining.
The arrangement for “What Do I Do Now” is an impressive act of musical navigation and mixing. It’s obvious from the intro that the band has no intention of abandoning their rock ‘n’ roll sweet spot as the lead-in of sticks and synth give way to a distorted guitar pattern of Db-Ab-B-Gb with special emphasis on the Gb (POW-POW-POW-POW—POW-POW!). Given the melancholy of the lyrics, this may seem like an odd fit, but the band hangs back for the verses to provide sufficient space for Louise to deliver her semi-detached vocal in a tone of weary defeatism. The band returns to full strength in the choruses, but though Louise continues in hangdog mode, her voice is double-tracked with touches of harmony and an upward melodic shift that allow her voice to come through loud and clear. It’s no wonder Elvis Costello chose to cover the song, for if anyone is capable of recognizing a great song when he hears one, it’s Elvis Costello.
The title for “Good Luck Mr. Gorsky” was lifted from a rumor going ’round at the time involving Neil Armstong and oral sex.
No, I’m not kidding. Neil Armstrong and oral sex. As incompatible a pairing as one could imagine, with or without the space helmet.
The story turned out to be a hoax as the allegation that Armstrong uttered the phrase while climbing back into the LEM didn’t hold up after a perusal of the NASA transcripts. As for the song, there are several Space Age references and one nod to baseball (the disproven tale begins with the classic act of hitting a baseball that lands in the neighbor’s yard), but no allusions to cunnilingus or blow jobs. It feels like an incomplete character sketch, and I don’t think depicting 69 in the song would have saved it. Not my favorite.
“Feeling Peaky” is a character sketch about a woman lacking character, inhabiting a world where everyone seems to be living lives more interesting than hers. The real treat here isn’t so much in the lyrics but in the rather daring arrangement that opens with a distinctive chord that I believe is E13 (rather like a sour dopplegänger of the “Hard Day’s Night” chord) that leads to a mix of loud-soft dynamics, a masterfully assertive guitar riff, delightfully weird guitar fills and a key-and-tempo change from verse to bridge where the band slams on the brakes and plummets from about 160 bpm to half-tempo. My favorite part can be found between verses one and two where the band turns down the volume to create a soundscape over a jazzy bass rift from Osman, a playful downhill guitar run from Stewart and crisp finger snaps. I like the song in the same way John Lennon liked Magical Mystery Tour better than other Beatle albums: “Because it’s so weird.” “Feeling Peaky” also reflects Sleeper’s desire to spread their wings and experiment with new sonic possibilities.
The lyrics and music to “Shrinkwrapped” are structured to represent the meandering mind of early morning. The narrator accurately describes this period as a time of “fractured thoughts,” a state of mind mirrored in verses that blur into one another to form a stream of semi-consciousness. She launches into her dark hour tale in a sleepy voice with minimal accompaniment, but as her story proceeds and her emotions enter the picture, the build also picks up strength, adding rougher textures and power to the flow. The music is so closely integrated with the narrator’s state of mind that it’s likely you could suss out the mood and meaning from an instrumental version.
Great job, Sleeperblokes!
Lucky for us, Louise wrote a great set of lyrics, allowing us to appreciate the full impact of the composition.
As the story opens, we learn that though she is technically not alone due to the presence of a bedside partner, her attempts to jar him from sleep end up in failure, leaving her feeling somewhat abandoned, which in turn triggers certain insecurities about the relationship:
You closed your eyes and left me here
And now I’m jealous of your sleep.
I made some noise to wake you up
It seems you’ve drifted out of reach
I’m not sure if you meant what you said
But that’s o.k.
‘Cos it still sounded good
When you said it anyway
As often happens when mind awakes before body, she engages herself in debate as to whether to stay in bed or face the day. Thoughts of the latter option ignite feelings of dread and revulsion as the habit of starting one’s day by either reading or tuning into the news has become an exercise in futility where truth gives way to titillation and pointless babble:
I’ll get up all I find
Is a paper that I hate
Real life disappears
And gets shrink-wrapped in its place
I get up watch tv
Helps me feed my vicious streak
Real life disappears
Then we watch the spooks on the news
Playing chess with the cynics
Hope you die in the arms of your shrinks in your clinics
The build rises to peak power at this point in keeping with her rising sense of frustration, summarized in a revenge fantasy that will likely remain a fantasy:
Now it’s gone 5 a.m.
We smile and plan our revenge
By the end the night has found its true friends
Up all hours sketching a thousand great schemes
Maybe I’m not too tired to colour them in
At this point, Jon Stewart engages in a deep grind using the lower guitar strings that sonically mirror the woman’s turbulent emotions. When the narrator returns, it seems she’s just repeating the opening verse, but what is really happening is that she has reached a psychological dead end and decides to return to where she started to get a grip on her thinking. As she starts going over old ground, she skips several lines as if she’s impatient to get it over with. Her narrative ends with a circular stanza that communicates avoidance of the inevitable conclusion: she has some idea of what she doesn’t want, but no idea what she truly wants:
I get what I want then I’m not sure I want to get what I want but I’m not sure I want to get what I want and I’m not sure I want to get what I want and I’m not sure I want it anymore.
If someone asked me to sum up the state of modern humanity in a consumer-driven society, I would quote that entire stanza. I’ll sum up this analysis by quoting the thoughts about the song from a contributor with the web handle of Mainstreet on songmeanings.com: “Louise, if you’re reading, please don’t take (at this time of typing) the fact that nobody viewed or commented on this song to heart. THIS SONG IS FUCKING BRILLIANT! It’s simply a travesty that this song isn’t more popular.”
“Dress Like Your Mother” opens like a five-alarm fire with high-speed picking from Stewart and never lets up, packing a rock-and-roll explosion in a tidy two-and-a-half minute package. The story is ostensibly about a couple, but Louise pretty much wraps it up with the male half in the two opening lines: “Friday’s gym and Sunday’s grim/He sees an analyst on Tuesday morning.” The rest is devoted to “wifey,” who is “no happier than him” and rather self-absorbed (“She only likes to hear her own voice talking”). Louise further describes the broad as having a face “Soaked in hype and foolishness” and slams her with the ultimate put-down:
They say when you upped and left
Your parents didn’t even notice
50 years to go ooh la la
And it seems to me that you’re all dead already
In keeping with the woman’s vanity and heightened opinion of herself, we learn she works in the fashion industry and feels no guilt, empathy or even awareness of the exploitative nature of the business:
Wifey works on style mags
Thin girls with bruises in her pictures
Halfway down she lost herself
I think they call it butterfingers
Her place in society is “cosy,” subject to “occasional domestic flare-ups.” Digging deeper, Louise informs us that she wasn’t always a manufactured product of consumer culture, but apparently gave all that up for the good life:
You sold your old punk records
Read the book instead
You lost your sense of humour
But you kept The Queen is Dead
You don’t look yourself
You dress like your mother
Though I’m hardly a monarchist, I’ll pass up the opportunity to comment on the reference to The Smiths out of respect for the royal family and simply express my emphatic approval of the track placement on this album. We needed an upbeat rocker after the melancholy complexity of “Shrinkwrapped” and Sleeper nailed it.
But why stop there when you’ve got a band that knows how to rock? “Statuesque” was one of the singles from the album and it has the feel of a single with its catchy melody, choral repetition and engaging presentation. The curious aspect of the song is that the adjective “statuesque” is generally applied to females but here it’s applied to a man (or so I assume, for Louise doesn’t define the gender of the love interest). If a man, he obviously carries more bulk than the woman in question, who reveals she’s “got to carry some stairs to get near enough.” The picture that enters my mind is one of those stone golem characters that appear in RPG video games and if that’s the case, he could probably use the chiseling down the woman offers. Fun song, nothing too deep, but a sheer delight.
“Glue Ears” is similar to “Feeling Peaky” in that it stretches the band’s boundaries, especially with the stuttered rhythm echoed in the phrase “Clumsy, clumsy, aren’t we” that opens the chorus. Unfortunately, the sonic contrasts are a bit too jarring to sustain a solid flow and though the song features a few interesting lines, the lyrics aren’t particularly compelling.
“Nice Guy Eddie” is the only track to retain the name of a Reservoir Dogs character, though the Eddie in this song isn’t the guy who never quite realized he was in way over his head and achieved instant karma by murdering a cop before biting the dust himself shortly thereafter. This Eddie is an older gent with an iffy ticker who still manages to bed his fair share of the ladies—including the song’s narrator, who slips into a special bra (hopefully cupless) in preparation for an all-night hump on the couch. We then learn that Eddie wants to continue the affair but alas, the girl really just wanted to check off the box on her bucket list next to “Fuck a gangster”:
Oh we knew it couldn’t last
And we should have left it long before
One great year and one for luck
And like all good things you soon wanted more
You were always so polite
I think I loved you
While Eddie’s heart withstood the passionate love-making he was no match for the olive in his dry martini and apparently no one in the restaurant knew the Heimlich Maneuver. Kudos to the band for the solid rock background and double kudos to Louise for a fascinating and oddly believable character sketch.
“Stop Your Crying” doesn’t have a whole lot to offer beyond serving as a break between two sex-heavy numbers, so we’ll move on to the much more interesting “Factor 41,” where we find Louise expressing interest in the strong, cool and silent type of movie chiché-dom . . . but her description of that type’s characteristics are far more imaginative than what you might have read in Variety during Hollywood’s heyday:
- “Two ferries collide and you’ll be the one/Standing on the dock reading papers in the sun”
- “Two robbers arrive big guys with guns/You’ll be the one looking backwards as we run”
- “Crusaders come by fat guys who sing/You’ll be the one not believing anything”
- “We wear out the sun you’ll be the one/Lying on the roof wearing factor 41”
There are two possible interpretations of these bursts of flattery. It’s possible that she doesn’t really know the guy and is projecting her definition of the perfect partner onto his desirable body—calm in crisis, not afraid of anything, non-religious and devoted to skin care. As she appears to be speaking to him directly, the other possibility is that she’s engaging in the art of stroking a man’s ego with considerably more originality than the typical broad in heat—and there’s no doubt that she’s in the mood:
I’m not afraid of you you’re very nice in fact
Now give me all your cigarettes
These little love attacks
Are making me feel queasy
Can’t get my heart rate down
But for most of the song, she’s not sure exactly what to do with this hunk, asking herself, “What can I do with you?” and “What can I do for you?”
Perceptive Sleeper fans will note that I skipped one of the bits of flattery that appears in the first verse and foreshadows the inevitable conclusion: “The ice age arrives you’ll keep me warm/Falling at your feet with no feelings of my own.” Yep, she’s trying the old bat-your-eyes-and-look-sweet-and-desirable trick, but for some reason, the come-on hasn’t penetrated Mr. Perfect’s thick head. There’s only one thing to do in the end—TAKE CHARGE, BABY!
I’m not afraid of you you’re very nice
In fact you’ve got it all but now I’m bored
Of being sycophantic
So get your knickers down
The music to “Factor 41” demonstrates both the band’s innate flexibility and once again, their ability to drive a song home with take-no-prisoners rock ‘n’ roll. The verses (where the flattery occurs) are attached to a stutter-stop rhythm somewhere between Latin and funk and the choruses are foot-to-the-floor drive, perfectly mirroring both the hesitancy and burning desire of a woman yearning to get over tradition and make the decisive move.
The It Girl closes with a surprise of sorts with the sound of quiet acoustic guitar leading the way, “Click…off…gone.” The lyrics lie somewhere between impressionist and expressionist, so you can pretty much interpret them to fit your own response to the imagery. I have no problem with Louise’s Françoise Hardy-like breathy vocal, but I wish they’d resisted the temptation to employ the available synthesizer and hired a flutist to accompany the acoustic guitar.
Here’s the thing: the more I listen to Sleeper, the more I believe they should be considered a top-tier Britpop band. Only Jarvis Cocker can be mentioned in the same breath as Louise Wener when it comes to lyrics and Sleeper more than held their own when it came to delivering punchy, driving rock ‘n’ roll.
Like the Sundays, Sleeper called it a day after only three albums, but unlike the Sundays, they came back twenty years later with The Modern Age, then released the follow-up This Time Tomorrow at the height of the pandemic. I’ve heard both albums but have yet to listen to them deeply enough to form a truly informed opinion, but my initial reaction to both was a nice big smile on my face.
They’ve still got it, and in my book, Louise Wener is the modern, more substantial version of the It Girl.