The Charlatans have been serving up a melting pot of Hammond organ-laced indie for over 25 years now. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you have to admire their longevity, especially in the face of two tragedies hanging over them. First came the sudden departure of keyboardist Rob Collins in a car accident, yet they didn’t falter, they hit back hard; their next album – Tellin’ Stories from 1996 – is largely acknowledged to be their best amongst a count that now reaches a dozen after the 11th – the disappointing Who We Touch – arrived in 2010.
In August 2013, a second tragedy struck: founding member and drummer Jon Brookes finally succumbed to the brain tumour that first revealed its presence in a mid-gig seizure in Philadelphia during a 2010 tour. Modern Nature therefore has the tough task of being the second album to pick up the pieces after the loss of a band member, but quite astoundingly, history appears to have repeated itself.
The album begins in single-tastic style with the already released Talking In Tones and So Oh commencing proceedings before upcoming single Come Home Baby takes the baton, but it isn’t until the third track that the first glimpse of the band’s most familiar guise appears during a stirring, organ-led chorus after smooth soul-tinged verses. Both other singles bring an altogether different, chilled out vibe to a band more celebrated for their punchy belters: Talking In Tones – initially worked out during a jamming session involving guitarist Mark Collins behind the kit and singer Tim Burgess picking up the guitar – is apparently about telepathic communication, and it’s rather fitting. It’ll creep up on you after a number of listens rather than hit you straightaway but when it hits, it’ll hit you like a Mike Tyson right hook, the jangly chorus living up to the lyrics of “it’s like heaven”. So Oh is another fresh sounding effort, the slide guitar (or is it a synth?) riff giving the song a strong core where more swooning vocals sit alongside an underpinning bass and jaunty percussion for a track written by the band as they dreamt of summer during a bitter winter period.
Remarkably, the rest of the album holds up just as well, albeit in different ways. The slow, slick guitar flicks of the soulful Keep Enough was the first new track penned by the foursome and is possibly the band’s coolest ever number, featuring sublime string arrangements by Sean O’Hagan. Then there’s a couple of more up-tempo crackers: Emelie is a gem where sunny, flowery verses with a serious sounding undertone lead to a bubbly bridge and spine-tingling chorus. Let The Good Times Be Never Ending elevates the action even higher, a disco beat alongside gospel backing singers, Johnny Marr like guitaring from Mark Collins, brass from Dexys’ Big Jim Paterson and a bassline that’s “the best thing you’ve ever heard” according to its creator Martin Blunt is a DJ’s dream in waiting, with the extended instrumental lead out jam likely to be seeing even lengthier remixes.
The intense Need You To Know then adds some spy thriller mystery to the mix before a classic album closer appears one track early, Burgess’ favourite on the collection – Trouble Understanding, a mellow piano-led melodramatic wind down.
Three drummers have contributed to filling the huge void left by Brookes, using his own kit in the process: Stephen Morris of New Order, Factory Floor’s Gabe Gurney, and the most likely of replacements, Pete Salisbury of The Verve fame, who is already familiar to the band having stepped in for live performances since Brookes first became ill. When discussions around a new album first began, Brookes himself was keen to be involved despite his ailment and a track written by him in his hospital bed – Walk With Me – is included as a bonus number on the deluxe edition of the album.
Quite simply stunning, Modern Nature is a must-have. Wholly unexpected and majestic, repeated plays will reward tenfold as song after song worms itself under the skin to create a thoroughly rewarding experience. This is The Charlatans. This is a national treasure. This is magnificence.