The Charlatans’ 11th studio album, 20 years on from their classicdebut Some Friendly (which they performed live earlier this year), reveals aband that has lost its way.
Although Who We Touch is a bit better than their hugely disappointingprevious album You Cross My Path (2008), it still falls well short of theirearlier output which made The Charlatans one of the top bands of the’90s. A string of strong albums in which they reinvented their soundseveral times, from their original Madchester Hammond organ days to morerootsy Rolling Stones-like guitar rock, Bob Dylan-esque folk, soul and evenreggae, showed the way to experiment without losing consistency. Now itseems they’ve finally run out of ideas.
The muscular single Love Is Ending is a misleading opener as it promisesa harder-edged sound which never materializes. Beginning and ending with athrash of metal and featuring Sex Pistols-style guitar chords, thispunk rocker about a terminal relationship ripples with anger, but proves tobe a one-off on an album which is more mellow than menacing.
With its softer, more conciliatory mood, My Foolish Pride is a Motownsoul-tinged pop song with a catchy chorus and pizzicato strings, while YourPure Soul is downright self-condemning as the singer confesses “I’m tired ofmyself trying to control your pure soul”, amidst laid-back string- andorgan-accompanied melodies.
The aggressive lyrics of Smash The System are echoed by the insistentlyhard drum beat, though what the singer is annoyed about is obscure as hemoans, “I don’t belong here in your garden, I should be up there on yourthrone”. The repetitive, slightly funky beat of Intimacy drones on withfront man Tim Burgess just about managing to stretch his voice from a lowthroatiness to soaring falsetto.
The excellent Sincerity is a bit of a return to The Charlatans’ earlierHammond-driven style with a punchy, shouted out chorus, even though thetedious succession of rhymes with “sincerity” includes such ridiculous linesas “I find atrocity in your monotony”. However, Trust In Desire and When IWonder are both instantly forgettable.
Oh! stands out from the other tracks on the album, with its moodilyatmospheric circular guitar and electric piano motifs and an unexpectedlurch near the end into Kurt Weill-like fairground music. Plus Burgess giveshis most expressive vocal performance as he romantically warbles, “But wedon’t know how to say goodbye/Sighing lightly underneath blue skies/But inmy dream we are invincible”. But the Brian Eno-esque You Can Swim,with its ambient waves of distorted sound, washes over you so gently as tobe soporific.
The ‘secret’ extra track I Sing The Body Eclectic features the singerfrom anarchist punk band Crass and performance poet Penny Rimbaud. Itsspaced out music and lyrics are weirdly unsettling, as much to do withRimbaud’s apocalyptic tones as the cryptic content of the words: “Oh, thosemagical moments of mind/Conjuring ideas of space/That we might wander asentities/Every bit as much disturbing as disturbed.” Sorry?
Though the band sound in reasonably good form and the album shows howmuch Burgess has developed as a singer over the years, overall the songsthemselves are just not strong enough. The Charlatans don’t touch us thistime.