Damn. I hate working under a deadline.
Here’s the deal: I have to complete this review before December 31 because I have word from the highest authority (sorry, but journalistic ethics deter me from naming my sources) that on January 1 the Tories will brand me a threat to sovereignty and ban publication of the altrockchick throughout the United Kingdom!
Such is the fate of an E.U. citizen facing a no-deal or shit-deal Brexit. The Brits are even getting ready to deploy gunboats against the French to protect their sovereign rights to fish and chips.
Hmm. Maybe I should have held on to my American citizenship.
My plan was to end 2020 the way I started it—with Britpop. I wanted to balance the series by shifting focus from the major bands and showcase some of the less familiar names, particularly the Britpop bands fronted by women. I thought I had plenty of time because I couldn’t believe that the negotiating parties could be stupid enough to opt for a messy divorce.
Well, fuck me for being an optimist.
Britpop may have had something to do with that optimism. At its heart, Britpop involved two complementary themes: a rejection of both American dominance in music and other aspects of popular culture combined with a fervent belief that it was time for UK musical artists to step up and reclaim the homeland by writing songs about the British experience. Britpop also served as a means of recovery from the gray gloom of the Thatcher years, giving a new generation hope in terms of building a more vibrant and inclusive society. And though the horrible term “Britpop” implies something light and cheerful, its greatest works challenged class structures and questioned the Thatcherian emphasis on materialism.
It should come as no surprise that some of the great Britpop albums failed to chart in the United States (Parklife and Different Class are the two most obvious “failures”). Oasis was the only Britpop band to have any significant chart success in the USA, but I’m reasonably certain that if the Gallagher Brothers had peddled their wares in their Mancunian accents, they would have crashed on the rocky shores of New England and returned home licking their wounds. Most Britpop bands rejected the tendency of previous British artists to sing American-style, and the combination of British bands singing in British accents about unique aspects of British culture was simply too much for xenophobic Americans to handle.
Sleeper was one of those Britpop bands who never charted in the United States despite a raft of great songs and an extremely appealing front woman in the person of one Louise Wener. Part of the problem involved signing with a fake independent label that was actually a major label subsidiary. As Louise put it in an article she wrote for The Guardian, “It’s fair to assume, as I did then, that an organisation dedicated to the purpose of selling records might exhibit some skills relevant to that purpose. The shock from which you never quite recover is discovering that record companies have no skills at all.” Having botched the release of their first big hit (“Inbetweeners”) by failing to print enough copies to meet demand, the fake label (Indolent) further confirmed their lack of commitment by providing Sleeper with “funding more commensurate with a village bun shop.”
While a bit more effort may have led to a modest breakthrough in the States (though Clive Davis and Arista mis-marketed the band as well), I doubt that anything could have persuaded Americans to get over the obstacle of Sleeper’s essential Britishness. Louise Wener not only chose to sing in her natural voice but also filled her lyrics with references to people, places and things that only denizens of the U. K. and hardcore anglophiles could have understood. While the few Dickens fans in the USA would have gone gaga over the use of the word “treacly,” they would have no frame of reference to grasp the term “peaky” in that pre-Netflix era and certainly no idea who or what Keith Prowse is. This is not a criticism of Louise Wener, who was one of Britpop’s most capable lyricists, but an acknowledgment of the curious and often unpredictable barriers presented by the cultural belief in American exceptionalism.
In addition to amateur hour at the record company and colonist resistance, Louise also had to deal with the “What’s it like to be a woman in a band?” crapola. “Because I wrote frank lyrics, I was depicted as sex-crazed and whorish (imagine such an accusation being levelled at a male rock star), and because I didn’t lie down, look pretty and wax lyrical about my feminine angst, I was summarily demonised. One music paper even published letters in which men brayed for me to be burnt as a witch.” Although she didn’t consider herself one of the Riot Grrrls (she saw their rough amateurism as an opportunity for Sleeper and their more melodic orientation), she understood where they were coming from and adopted their ethic of celebrating the power of female sexuality. Louise Wener was an intelligent, attractive and confident woman working in a sexist industry, a phenomenon that some found very appealing and others quite frightening.
Louise was such an overwhelming presence that the three male band members were tagged with the term “Sleeperbloke” to convey their relative anonymity. Nonetheless, Jon Stewart, Andy Maclure and Diid Osman (with Louise on rhythm guitar) formed a tight band who excelled at delivering melodic rock with a kick. The combination of fascinating lyrics and a sound that falls somewhere between the Sundays and the Pixies (two of their acknowledged influences) results in a bright-and-crunchy listening experience.
Smart opens with the aforementioned hit single, “Inbetweener,” a song Louise described as “about where people live and what they do in suburbia, and it’s about unfulfilled dreams.” The track opens with two nice layers of crunchy guitar emphasizing the flatted seventh on the F chord to bring out the grit, quickly followed by a sweet bass run from Diid Osman cueing Andy Maclure to establish the slightly uptempo beat and Jon Stewart to throw in a not-too-frightening screaming lead riff. The song flows exceptionally well thanks in large part to the rhythm section and a hummable melody enhanced by Louise’s slightly understated vocal —so well that you might not even notice that there’s a mini-key change in the pre-chorus and a full-on key change in the chorus proper.
I think Louise sold herself short in her sound byte explanation of the song’s meaning. It is indeed true that everything in your typical suburb feels in-between, lacking the vibrancy of the city and the alluring beauty of the country, but the song also deals with the tendency that exists in all milieus of modern life: to have “in-between” relationships to satisfy the sex drive or ease the emptiness inside while waiting for someone better to come along. The two characters in the mini-novel seem to lead separate lives within the suburban prison; she’s “shopping for kicks, got the weekend to get through” while “He’s cleaning the car on his pebbledash driveway.” Their visions of the future are unshared and extremely limited: “He dreams of a roller, she dreams of a fast getaway.” The chorus highlights the pervasive feeling of less-than that pervades the emptiness of their lives, a feeling that leads them to devalue themselves and settle for temporary fixes:
He’s not a prince, he’s not a king
She’s not a work of art or anything
It makes no sense (it makes no sense)
Another year (another year)
What kind of A to Zed would get you here
He’s nothing special, she’s not too smart
He studies fashion, she studies art
I think I told you right from the start
You were just my inbetween
Just my inbetween
You’re such an inbetweener
Later we learn that the “he” in the song is having a sexual orientation crisis of sorts: “He went to the Dream Boys, got tickets from Keith Prowse/Cancelled his lifelong subscription to Penthouse.” Meanwhile, she is reminded that he never really was her dream date: “She goes round the corner, she sees Harry Conway/She says to herself that she’ll leave him on Monday.” Revealing herself as a diligent songsmith searching for les mots justes, Louise changes one line in the final round of the chorus that says it all: “He doesn’t listen, she doesn’t laugh.” In less than three minutes, Louise created a memorable tapestry of life in the burbs, capturing not only the trappings but the deep frustration dogging the inhabitants.
Rough guitars, squeaks and feedback make for a pleasantly hellish background to “Swallow,” a song about a different kind of identity theft. First, though, Louise had to clarify that the song had nothing to do with the ultimate result of a successful blow job, though fans who thought so can be forgiven for misinterpreting lyrics like “sucked out” and “he messed up your bedsheets.” According to the co-author (Jon Stewart also had a hand in its composition), “Swallow” is “about a relationship breaking down. It’s actually a really sad song. It’s also about when people steal all your secrets and know all there is to know about you and the image is a metaphor for that.” Ergo, this “swallow” is more like “to swallow someone’s bullshit,” or, as Jenny Lewis would put it in the next decade, “And the talking leads to touching/And the touching leads to sex/Then there is no mystery left.” I love the line that forms the chorus and deserves the repetition it receives: “That’s no lover, that’s a vanity thief.” Once the intro is complete, the tempo seems to approach punk-level speeds, but the effect is a mirage, as the shift to the more melodious chorus—which feels a tad slower due to the longer notes in the vocal—remains at the same steady beat.
It would seem from the first two songs that “fucked-up relationships” is one of the album’s major themes, and Louise now proposes to rectify the situation with open and honest communication in “Delicious”:
You’re a big man
But you’re out of shape
I could help you
Get it back again
We should both go to bed
Till we make each other sore
We should both stay in bed
Till we make each other roar
You’re delicious aha (3) . . .
We should both get away
And explore our darkest dreams
We should both find a place
Where no one can hear our screams . . .
Talk about taking the words right out of my mouth, baby! I know I’ve suggested “a place where no one can hear our screams” multiple times to regular and prospective partners. There’s this mid-sized cabin somewhere on the Sonoma-Mendocino coast with these delightfully strong rafters where . . . well, let’s just say we left it all on the playing field and deposited so much DNA in the place that the most thorough cleaning will never destroy the evidence.
I love the mix on this song, particularly how the band dials it down during the verses, leaving plenty of space for the audience to hear Louise’s words with no difficulty whatsoever. I’m reasonably sure that “out of shape” refers to the man’s inability to pitch a tent, so to speak, and Louise is entirely right in applying direct, no-bullshit, unrestrained desire to remedy the problem. I also love the shift to a slower, grander tempo in the fade, where, in the throes of erotic desire, Louise adds two rounds of “Make it dirtier” to the chorus.
Sleeper wisely chooses to dial it way, way, way down with “Hunch,” a curious song that alternates between extreme quiet and a Pixies-LOUD explosion on the chorus. The lyrics in the quieter verses describe two “unsightly” people:
She’s so small
Tiny and crushed up
54, the size of a child
Long pale hair
Her eyes are all red
She’s got skin the colour of bread
He’s all bald
Crusty and oozing
Got six arms, lips like a frog
Great big hump
Tiny and hunched up
He can’t speak, just barks like a dog
The response to these physically and mentally challenged people appears in the powered-up chorus:
Don’t look at me with those freakshow eyes
I’m not like you at all
Don’t touch me, you must be crazy
I don’t like the shape that you’re in
The way you look reminds me of something
It’s all because you’re nothing like me
If that sounds cold, I believe that was the intent, as revealed by the lines “I’m not like you at all” and “It’s all because you’re nothing like me.” It is entirely natural for a young, attractive human being to go into denial about the inevitable decline that awaits them as they age; hence the narrator’s refusal to further explore her vague feeling that “The way you look reminds me of something.” It sucks to have to accept mortality, especially when you’re young and expect to “live forever,” to borrow a phrase from that famous Britpop anthem. Louise could have made the point much clearer by adding a closing line like “The way you look reminds me you’re a lot like me” but I think leaving the narrator in denial was a much more effective choice, as it leaves this cold bitch wallowing in her lack of humanity.
“Amuse” is an even quieter song, featuring Louise, a low-volume electric guitar and another fucked-up relationship where the narrator has bottomed out on self-esteem, “locked inside a prison of my own construction,” thanks to a manipulative man with high control needs. This is a classic example of bad masochism where rather than taking pride in one’s devotion to another, the woman craves psychological punishment:
Ignored me for days just so I’d want you more
Your beautiful face making my eyes feel sore
You’re tragically vain
You knew I’d adore you for it
This is a state the bad sadist in the song finds “amusing,” hence the song title. The closing line, “I think I’ve finally found a place where I can sleep” is highly ambiguous, but all I can hope for is that she’s not sleeping with that asshole. As in “Hunch,” Louise paints an unpleasant picture as a form of warning of the myriad ways in which people can lose their humanity.
It’s time to pick things up and Sleeper takes the Pixies influence a few steps further with multiple quiet-LOUD combinations in “Bedhead.” Except for a passing reference in the last verse, the song has little to do with “bed head,” the condition that occurs when you forget to use the conditioner and wake up with a veritable hair explosion guaranteed to ruin your day after you take your first look in the mirror. The more relevant meaning can be explained by the terms “pothead” or “crackhead,” in this case describing a person with a serious addiction to fucking. The best part of the song is what passes for a chorus where Louise attempts to draw her partner’s attention to her sweet spot by moaning “Higher, higher, higher, ooh ah ooh wow!” It’s all so delightfully rhythmic that it sounds like she’s having sex in the studio . . . but I’m certain that this is just great acting and not rock star indulgence.
Louise Wener’s penchant for playing doppelgänger and writing songs from the opposing perspective landed her in a bit of hot water with “Lady Love Your Countryside.”
The way in which I was portrayed was always violently at odds with the way I viewed myself; all traces of playfulness and irony were obliterated. When I cast jibes at the “right-on” brigade by writing a song called “Lady Love Your Countryside,” a tongue-in-cheek eulogy to the pleasures of meat-eating, aerosol spraying and motorway building, I was baffled to find myself being taken seriously (from Guardian article).
I’ve seen at least one interpretation that read the song as an attack on puritanic crow Mary Whitehouse, but what I hear is both an expression of impatience with equally puritanic and horribly judgmental political correctness combined with a satiric attack on the fuck-all pessimism of the grunge scene—the latter message similar in spirit but less opaque in comparison to Noel Gallagher’s commentary on the Stop the Clocks DVD as he explained the background of “Live Forever.” “It was written in the middle of grunge and all that, and I remember Nirvana had a tune called ‘I Hate Myself and I Want to Die,’ and I was like … ‘Well, I’m not fucking having that.’ As much as I fucking like him [Cobain] and all that shit, I’m not having that. I can’t have people like that coming over here, on smack, fucking saying that they hate themselves and they wanna die. That’s fucking rubbish.” No playfulness or irony there!
Foreshadowing her future as a novelist, Louise presented her case in ironic but concrete language, effectively bemoaning youthful nihilism, death wishes and faux chip-on-the-shoulder stances:
Let’s get messed up boy messed up good
Climb over here
And we could spend some time drinking and scheming
We’ll close our eyes
Until we find ourselves hard to believe in
Face it boy life is a mess
I want to see you boxing naked to the death
Run and get your cigarettes
They make your lungs all treacly
You shouldn’t look at me like that
Unless you want to mess with me
I don’t know what kind of brain could have interpreted her lyrics literally, but I guarantee you it wasn’t a brain working on all cylinders. Did some people really believe that Louise looked forward to a future with her loser boyfriend spending “our lives puking in Belsize Park?”
I am grateful every day for my microscopic fame.
Speaking of foreshadowing, “Vegas” clearly indicates that Louise had an early fascination with Sin City that she would later explore in greater depth in her novel The Perfect Play. The song brings us back to the lost-in-suburbia theme of “Inbetweeners,” where people live out elaborate escape fantasies to combat the ennui. In this case, the dreamer is a “guy who lives in a really dingy bedsit in Peckham who’s really lonely” (according to Louise), who socks away enough money to fly to Vegas and piss it all away. Andy Maclure opined that in real life the guy would never leave his bedsit, and I think the song would have been much stronger had Louise taken that path—it certainly looks like that’s where she’s headed early in the song:
He sings like Sinatra with more feel
Plays with his pocket roulette wheel all day
And no one stopped him
One of the universal features of life in suburbia—dating back as far as the advent of Levittowns in the postwar era—is the conspiracy of silence residents enter into in order to maintain the façade of a happy, civilized, perfectly normal community. Signs of underlying dysfunction are generally ignored and never discussed in polite company, whether it’s the stay-at-home wife popping pills with the curtains drawn or the husband sneaking in a hot young stud when the wife is visiting her mother. The guy in “Vegas” clearly needed an intervention, but “no one stopped him.” Not my problem. He’s harmless. Look the other way. I’ve got my own problems. Get off my fucking lawn.
There are two competing versions of “Vegas.” The album track opens with a brief intro highlighting Jon Stewart’s amazing tonal manipulation that transforms the guitar into Stephane Grapelli’s lo-fi violin before flipping to a classic pop-rock arrangement with a solid melody and a touch of looming sorrow. The single version pulls out all the stops in a rather grand production that mushrooms to include saxophones and a string section. I prefer the less-sanitized album version, as it feels more in sync with the true psychology of the character.
The weakest track on the album has to be “Poor Flying Man,” with its going-nowhere tale and consequent misuse of the soft-LOUD combination in a song with no narrative and hence no drama. The first verse hints at an exposé of our fascination with superheroes but that possibility crashes to the ground when the guy flying through the air turns into a frozen stiff . . . then I thought it might explain the presence of the Mercury astronauts on the cover, but those hopes sort of . . . flew out the window.
The Wener-Stewart composition “Alice in Vain” is the grungiest song on the album with Nirvana-like guitars in a position of prominence. Jon Stewart’s sinuous fills and powered lead solo represent his best work on the album, and Louise matches his effort with a vocal of equal intensity. The musical structure is fascinating; the key turns out to be E minor, though you never hear an E minor chord in the verses—just the tension-building combination G-C-B begging for resolution that takes a tantalizingly long time to arrive in the chorus. I also love the out-of-the-blue D-E major transition from solo to fade, an unexpected move that ramps up the excitement. “Alice in Vain” is one of the more musically ambitious tracks on the album, and Sleeper handles the challenge with aplomb.
The track opens with a street recording of an arrogant male prick standing in judgment of a woman based solely on her appearance: “God, look at that/She’s supposed to be on a diet/Wonder what her waistline will be like in five years time.” This turns out to be poor Alice, a schoolgirl who isn’t all that pretty and doesn’t have a boyfriend. Alice clings to an astonishing belief that “Girls don’t hurt each other,” a notion immediately corrected by Louise when she sings “Girl, don’t kid yourself.” Amen to that—teenage girls can be absolute bitches when it comes to comparing themselves to the perceived competition. The narrator seems to share a mea culpa of sorts by confessing, “I hurt myself/I hurt my Alice in vain,” an admission that it’s hard not to gang up on the ugly one when all the other girls are doing it. The salient point is that both men and women evaluate human worth based on presentation, a much more honest view of cultural norms than the classic men-are-all-assholes radical feminist take.
“Twisted” lacks the lyrical cohesion of most of the other songs on Smart, and though I think the filter applied to Louise’s voice on the chorus adds a certain allure to the song, there isn’t much substance under the sheets. “Pyrotechnician” serves as the grand finale, where Louise plays the role of a budding pyromaniac who finds herself irresistibly drawn to a pyrotechnician. There are few singers who can throw themselves so completely into the role of healthily-obsessed sex maniac as Louise Wener, and her out-of-breath vocal communicates that there’s more heat coming from her libido than the fireworks display. With the band rocking with fiery intent, “Pyrotechnician” proves to be an exceptionally effective closer, one that leaves the listener begging for more.
Smart is an outstanding debut album of surprising diversity and lyrics of exceptional quality. Sleeper had a pretty clear vision of the sound they wanted to create and the musical talent to pull it off. And despite all the shit she had to go through due to the absence of a penis, Louise Wener emphatically established herself as a superb songwriter and vibrant personality.
Were these normal times, I would tell you that I can’t wait to review their second album, The It Girl. Alas, Rupert Murdoch ruins everything he gets his grubby little mitts on, so for now, all I can promise is I will do my best to review Elastica before the British Navy attempts to recapture the glory days of yesteryear by sending the French Armada of Fishermen to a watery grave.