If you’re a congenitally morose urban troubadour who spends his afternoons in dank cafés rereading The Diary of a Seducer and your nights swimming in absinthe turning nothing inside out and your mornings hanging on to your bedsheets to keep from falling off the face of the earth and you’ve never had a transient mood swing that didn’t warrant at least a four-piece string accompaniment and you’re as likely to write a song called “Trying to Fall in Love Again” as you are “Drunk Tank” as you are “Jism” and you tell the NME that the first record you fell in love to was Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos, then a crisis of temperament has erupted the moment it occurs to you to ask, “When do you lose the ability to step back and have a sense of your own ridiculousness? They’re only songs.”
Stuart Staples mumbled this very exchange with himself during the “Ballad of Tindersticks” on 1997’s aptly named Curtains, their third record, in which a new, possibly virulent strain of self-consciousness in Tindersticks’ corner of the pub was signaled as well by at least two appearances of the word “irony.” (It’s possible there were more, but Staples’s lyrics often go missing down an empty glass or get buried along with his head in his tweedy sleeves.) Tindersticks had a pair of dazzling epics behind them, both called Tindersticks: baroquely romantic, bombastically depressive paeans to hopeless love, set in the cobbled alleys and grimy dives of someplace that looked like London (maybe rainier) but sounded variously like Baudelaire’s Paris, Isherwood’s Berlin, or Morricone’s wild-west Italy—often all at once. Staples narrated in his ‘luded baritone whinny—a bit of Scott Walker’s vibrato bravado, a little Dylanish hee-hawing, a touch of Sid Vicious’s “My Way.” Violins and cellos exulted, wept, or babbled incoherently after being stricken with a vision of the Venus in Furs, tipsy wisps of arpeggiated guitar wove their way through the deserted wee-hour streets, and—always—an ethereal Fender Rhodes piano lulled our flaneur host into sleep, sprinkled pixie dust onto daydreams of his latest wayward sweetheart, or gently nudged him out the door at closing time.
Curtains was a last call of sorts: Tindersticks’ next effort, 1999’s wan Simple Pleasure, found the droll philosophes with a bad case of tourism, plunging earnestly into lockstep, sexless soul with pseudo-gospel strains and consistently comprehensible vocals. Still envious of Gaye’s serene exhortations and Mayfield’s anxious shimmy, the new Can Our Love . . . continues in a similar streamlined vein, but injects much missed old addictions: jarring atonal flourishes, morbid fatalism and suspicion cohabiting with quixotic faith and devotion. “This dying slowly seemed better than shooting myself,” Staples decides on the opening track. There’s a hell below and we’re all going to go.
Can Our Love . . . is far less sprawling and ornate and generally prone to seizure than Tindersticks I and II, but menacing shadows have returned to flicker in the corners of these solid song structures, and creeping rot eats away at the seemingly hardy verse-chorus-verse foundations. “People Keep Comin’ Around” insists on its own untethered paranoia with a roiling, rattling organ part and stalker courtesies (“You know I’ll always wait”), though Staples trades lines with soothing superego figure Dickon Hinchliffe, who eases the tension somewhat. (Hinchliffe also handles the string and brass arrangements, and shares crucial keyboard duties with David Boulter.) The orchestral parts often slip just barely out of tune, sounding warped by mistreatment or, more likely, pelting rain. “No Man in the World” is the de rigueur murmured-word selection, repositioning the bedraggled, love-damaged poète maudit as landed gentry but still up the same old creek, “sitting in the garden watching our house burn.”
To be sure, the songs often wind on too long, without hairpin turns or scenic detours to enliven the trip. The centerpiece title track, all coaxing bass and please-baby-please, is Staples’s stab at his very own “Let’s Stay Together,” but he cut a more convincing figure playing a slumped Leonard Cohen adept than an on-my-knees soul provider. “Don’t Ever Get Tired” is more diffuse: Melancholy arpeggios wind their way through the folk-pop pastoral hillside, drenched in autumn showers of Hammond and a guitar solo cribbed from “Gold Soundz.” The song is unassailably pretty, but it’s an adaptor plug—it could be a filler track on filler-free lovelies ranging from Joe Henry’s Kindness of the World to Bedhead’s Beheaded to R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People.
Tindersticks’ trajectory, in fact, does have its affinities with R.E.M.’s: an unfairly maligned Difficult Third Album clears the decks and the lead singer’s nasal passages, and what’s gone from the later work, however accomplished it may be, is that startling strangeness, the rare, eerie thrill of hearing something that sounds only like itself. And as with Michael Stipe, Tindersticks’ finest creative collaborations of late have been in the filmmaking arena: composing the scores for arthouse movies. After stirring the translucent waves of purring bass and wafting Fender Rhodes that buoyed Claire Denis’s chimerical tone poem Nenette and Boni, Tindersticks are featured in the opening scene of Patrice Chereau’s much anticipated hardcore sexapalooza Intimacy and provide the score for Denis’s Trouble Every Day, which promises, the press notes say, “an obscene pile-up of post-coital carnage” and reportedly features Vincent Gallo eating a chambermaid to death as they have sex. Le petit mort indeed—here’s hoping Tindersticks’ cinematic leaps can prep them to dive headlong and blind into the wreckage once again, leaving behind all inhibiting sense of their own still-transcendent ridiculousness.
Tindersticks play the Bowery Ballroom July 25.