Music Reviews
Bonfires on the Heath

The Clientele Bonfires on the Heath

(Merge Records) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

When Alasdair MacLean publicly considered the demise of The Clientele, it led to speculation about the exact reason behind it. Sure, it's certainly possible to sugarcoat a slew of 60’s inspired material for over ten years, but the confidence inherent in the Clientele's compositions was what positioned them apart from any rival pop band that even considered to take their musical direction to such levels of tranquility. Instead of masquerading the spirit of Davy Jones or Arthur Lee, The Clientele had merged both - taking the challenge of writing an attractive pop tune with some serious strokes of introspection.

It’s unorthodox to describe the Clientele’s fourth album, Bonfires on the Heath, as a safe record. For one thing, their characteristically melodic pop has always found some sort of distinctiveness, especially when it sounds safe. Deceptively safe. As they’ve been gradually abandoning the overcast production for a crisper and cleaner one, the songwriting approach remains unchanged – instead of expanding their method, they’ve been quietly perfecting their sound.

Bonfires on the Heath is another shrewd effort for the London based band. In Harvest Time, MacLean, like a true poet, advises us that everything here has a place and a time/ were only passing through. Featuring a wash of reverb drenched strumming and meaty violin tonality, Harvest Time recounts how MacLean had an accidental experience taking acid. The song itself vividly recounts the mood – the shivering and the majestic moments, along with a tempo that seems to twirl and broaden until the trip is over. Graven Wood, almost giving closure to Bonfires on the Heath, seems to follow this same sentiment – more strumming and a perfectly syncopated beat gives way to a quasi spoken word narration, accompanied by more psychedelic tendencies.

Even if any Clientele record shares the same parallels, there is always a new hook with every record. Usually, a Clientele record is about making some compromises outside the already established means. I Wonder Who We Are, probably the most upbeat of the batch, sounds atypically stimulating for them – a funky guitar gives way to a loungy piano, flamenco inspired acoustics, and a vivid horn section to close it off. This sort of optimism seems to fit the group, especially when it expands the sound instead of being merely nostalgic. Title track Bonfires on the Heath is more in the tradition of their 80’s hazy pop influences, throwing out some haunting effects and more jangly guitars, accompanied by a memorable use of “ooooos” in the chorus.

What doesn’t disappoint about Bonfires on the Heath is the way the songwriting strikes a strong blend between the naturalistic and the pensive, with a somewhat experimental approach. Alasdair MacLean definitely is schooled with his literature – while his writings recall the vivid imagery of a Robert Frost, MacLean seems to share the heart of a modernist; a common theme in his verses show a frail and emotional fellow that's not afraid to ponder about the past, yet remains hopeful for better things to come. His poetic leanings strive to match T.S. Elliot's most frank expressions.

As for a noted sense of continuity, The Clientele do opt to repeat themselves when the tide gets tough. Jennifer and Julia, one of the folkier numbers, almost got me to question if I was listening to their back catalogue, since it seemed quite reminiscent of some of the work on Strange Geometry. Bonfires on the Heath harks back to their earlier material, and it shows. However, it doesn't illustrate the immediacy of their past two efforts. Strange Geometry was the Clientele at their most flaunting, with a more muscular sound that seemed fit for their adequate tendencies. God Save the Clientele, on the other hand, was their classiest, showing them at their most comfortable, with detailed arrangements, and even some short bouts of rock n’ roll soloing. Instead of evolving, they retraced their path, trying to figure out which diverging road to take.

In all fairness, Bonfires on the Heath does sound fresh on occasion. Sketch follows their new and sporadically invigorating behavior, consisting of an organ, lively guitar licks, and almost unintelligible spoken word, all constructed as a funk song. Share the Night, previously heard in their excellent EP That Night, a Forest Grew, got a slight makeover – now it features more horns and some keyboard touches in the chorus. And then there’s Tonight, a stab at sentimental balladry that’s too stunning to ignore, originally penned by the Evergreen Days. MacLean pleas that we have no time arguing about love/time is far too precious too be wasted/ on this night with you. As the song rolls on, it speaks about a man’s plea to forget the past and cease the moment. Even MacLean never writes this straightforward, the lush melodicism proves that they have the austere style to fit any kind of songwriting.

The reason why the UK never caught on to The Clientele is certainly a mystery. Like the old saying, sometimes you can’t be a prophet in your own country. With all the redundancy that bands like Maccabees or Kaiser Chiefs bring to the table, The Clientele should be proud to boast their unique personality, even if they’re not to everyone’s taste. Curiously, all their major influences seem to draw from the western side of the spectrum, but the delivery that they carry is fairly universal. Unfortunately, Bonfires on the Heath, is unlikely to net them any major recognition.

Retracing to my opening statement, maybe there’s a reason why they would want to settle for a while. Bonfires on the Heath, like Suburban light, seems more like a compilation of sorts rather than a cohesive record. Still, Alasdair MacLean and company seem content, which is more than acceptable. If this is the end for the Clientele, it certainly is a suitable way to close the curtain for their most fervent fan base.