If I have to be proved utterly wrong in life, if I have to suffer a face liberally splattered with egg, then please let it be this way.
This is how I saw it – after lighting up the tail end of the ’90s with the spitting, tense, paranoid anger of their first three über-indie singles and the subsequent debut album’s headlong sprint through more hooks than your local DIY superstore, Clinic seemed to be gloriously living up to their initial concept: blood-splattered, operating theatre punk.
Then the magic seeped away. The garage-recorded sound of this first wave was replaced with a more spacious, carefully produced lounge-rock on their second long player, Walking With Thee. The crucial tense, sharp edges had gone. They’d grown up too early. All bands do one day – I got over it, I moved on.
The first single off Winchester Cathedral, The Magician, somewhat ironically did not suggest the old magic was about to come flooding back anytime soon. In isolation, it’s a Clinic-by-numbers jaunt that offers little new to those well used to the band’s unique sound. But heard amongst the glorious collection of gems that make up Winchester Cathedral, it sounds mighty fine.
Yes: What we have here is a good, old-fashioned Return To Form. Opener Country Mile gets things moving nicely with a driving rhythm and jangling guitar loop supporting trusty melodica wails and Ade Blackburn’s unique brooding, vaguely demented vocals. Already it’s clear this is a more jagged, guitar-driven sound than Walking With Thee – a deliberate step back to basics. Other tracks illustrate this nicely alongside the aforementioned single – The Stooges stomp of WDYYB, the Beefheart-ed discordance of Vertical Take Off In Egypt and the mouthorgan mash-up of Thank You (For Living).
Aside from the thrilling nature of these songs in their own right, they provide a perfect counterpoint to the simply breathtaking pop beauty elsewhere. Anne is the best ballad (for want of a better word) they’ve done since the debut album’s Distortions, with Blackburn’s vocal sounding on the very edge of emotional collapse. Home, sprinkled with the best use of sneezing in rock history, is the best ballad they’ve done since, erm, Anne; while the album highlight Falstaff is the best song they’ve ever done full stop.
Crucially, the lo-fi approach adds weight to the poignancy of the cold, claustrophobic music throughout. When sweet chords and heavenly wails collide with washboards, hisses, scrapes and whirrs, this band are at their very best.
Mention must also be made of the hurtling Circle Of Fifths, with a runaway staccato piano and, yet again, infectious melody, along with the weird and wonderful journey of August. Winchester Cathedral is certainly Clinic’s finest half hour.