It’s hard to believe it’s been seven years since Hampshire cult favourites The Clientele last released a record of new material, 2010’s slight, somewhat disappointing mini-album Minotaur. Since then, Alasdair MacLean, singer and principal songwriter for the band, has made two albums with his partner, Lupe Núñez- Fernández, as Amor de Días; curated the release of best-of compilation Alone And Unreal; overseen reissues of the band’s back catalogue high points Suburban Light and Strange Geometry, and played shows solo and with Amor de Días and The Clientele. MacLean and Núñez- Fernández have also been raising a family together, so it’s hardly surprising that fresh songs have been so long in coming.
The established Clientele line-up of MacLean, James Hornsey (bass), and Mark Keen (drums, piano, percussion) is joined on Music For The Age Of Miracles by former MacLean collaborator Anthony Harmer, who contributes string and brass arrangements as well as guitars, vocals, keyboards, saxophone and santoor, an idiosyncratic Iranian relative of the dulcimer. The end result is a definite return to form.
The Clientele have something of a tradition of outstanding opening album tracks (Since K Got Over Me from Strange Geometry; Here Comes The Phantom from God Save The Clientele) and Music For The Age Of Miracles doesn’t disappoint in this regard either. The Neighbour is The Clientele at their gorgeous best – hypnotic, weaving guitar patterns, Maclean’s plaintive, whispered vocals, sighing harmonies, a soaring chorus and a sublime string interlude of bucolic beauty.
The album never quite emulates this early peak, but it’s nevertheless utterly lovely throughout. Lunar Days is the kind of effortlessly elegant, meandering slice of hazy folk-rock they’ve specialised in for nearly two decades. Everything You See Tonight Is Different From Itself is a dreamlike, intricate tapestry of disparate instrumental textures; a lone, piercing trumpet taking centre stage towards the end of what is one of The Clientele’s most sophisticated compositions to date. Falling Asleep is given a distinctly Middle Eastern feel by the presence of Harmer’s santoor, giving The Clientele’s sound a mildly exotic shimmer which suits it rather well. There are other subtle touches on the record too; for example, a recording of the wind captured outside the late filmmaker Derek Jarman’s house in Dungeness, on the Kent coast.
For all of these positives though, the largely well-trodden ground of Music For The Age of Miracles sometimes feels slightly like stagnation. Never is this more apparent than on The Museum Of Fog, a spoken word narration of nostalgic memories that is essentially Losing Haringey (from Strange Geometry) rehashed 10 years or so on. Of course, when you have mastered your chosen template as completely and compellingly as The Clientele have done, perhaps there seems little point in making sweeping changes. Yet with a couple of notable exceptions, most of the songs here are not quite at the level of their finest work.
Music for The Age of Miracles is an excellent record and a level above Minotaur, without scaling the heights of their first four albums. More 2009’s Bonfires On The Heath than Suburban Light, perhaps. Even so, this is a cut above most of the competition, and The Clientele’s devoted fan base will lap it up.