I don’t kid myself about happy endings
My standard line on Someone to Drive You Home, the Long Blondes’ 2006 debut, is that it’s the best Elastica album since the first Elastica album. Someone to Drive You Home could’ve come off as straight pastiche; its wound-up collision of spidery heart-murmur postpunk and soul-exploding soap-opera girl-group pop had been well-trod ground even before Elastica got around to it. But like Elastica, the Sheffield quintet attacked that stuff with nervy abandon, and the result was an immediately likable pileup, all slashing guitars and sneery threats and adrenaline-rush pop-punk hooks. Except the Long Blondes had something Elastica didn’t: frontwoman Kate Jackson, whose understated snarl-purr was a straight-up Justine Frischmann but whose arch, merciless lyrical specificity had more to do with fellow Sheffield native Jarvis Cocker. Jackson had a way of tearing relationships to pieces, turning her withering gaze on herself just as often as she applied it to anyone else. The album’s showstopper was “You Could Have Both,” a woozy B-52s party-jam that started out as an icy attempt to break up a happy couple but quickly became a deeply disquieting meditation on the fear of getting old and boring and the tempting but hollow idea that one person might save you from that fate. “You Could Have Both” resonated hard for me, but maybe it didn’t work for the Long Blondes. Couples, the Long Blondes’ just-arrived sophomore album, finds them working to contradict nearly everything that once made them great. Something horrible happened to this band.
I’m tempted to say that the horrible something was Erol Alkan, the album’s producer. On Someone to Drive You Home, the band worked with former Pulp bassist Steve Mackey, who understood this band enough to know that he should stay out of their way. It wasn’t a lo-fi album by any stretch, but Mackey’s tinny, trebly sound gave the band’s breathless hooks the jarring immediacy they needed. Alkan, meanwhile, used to run the London club night Trash, which, I surmise, was sort of the British equivalent of these godawful scary Last Night’s Party smashed-fashion-plate things. Alkan is a DJ and a blog-house remixer, and he’s exactly the sort of person a band might look to work with once its members have gotten used to doing interviews about their vintage-store finds. There’s a half-realized disco influence all over Couples: electro beeps and ethereal vocal whooshes on “Century,” vanilla chicken-scratch funk guitars on “Guilt,” twinkling Eurodisco synths on “Too Clever By Half.” In itself, none of these new developments are bad things. Nor are they huge departures from their debut; the keyboards on Someone to Drive You Home might’ve been a whole lot less prominent in the mix, but they were still there. But the band’s dancefloor moves feel forced and tentative, and their newfound timidity feels miles away from the bloodthirsty brashness of the debut. And if they were going to go disco, they should’ve found someone better versed in the genre than Alkan, whose beats utterly lack dynamic range, plodding listlessly forward where the band once raged furiously in all directions. Listening to Couples next to something like Cut Copy’s shimmering new In Ghost Colours is a depressing exercise. A dancefloor fixation is a liability when a band doesn’t know what to do with it. Cut Copy know; they push their sound onward into pop delirium with total confidence. The Long Blondes, meanwhile, just sound uncomfortable.
This is all a bit melodramatic, of course; it’s not like Couples doesn’t have good moments. Jackson’s chilly character sketches are still here, and they’re nearly as sharp as they were on the debut. On “Guilt,” she shuts a would-be boyfriend down, pointing out that she’s already off the market while still intimating at some entanglements that she might be afraid to fully acknowledge: “Now I’ve made my choice and I’m sticking to it / And guilt has nothing, nothing to do with it.” “The Couples” finds Jackson living single and lamenting, pointing out that she’s jealous off all the involved people who are probably just as jealous of her. And “Too Clever By Half” is a sexily cruel kiss-off where she turns the tables on a cheating couple. All these songs are rendered in plainspoken, concrete language, and they’re better for it. But for an album called Couples (I’m ignoring the quotation marks in the title because they’re stupid, even if they do say something about the breakups of the two couples within the band), the album focuses lyrically on relationship politics way less forcefully than the previous one did. These days, they’re just as apt to come with rambling non-sequiturs (“Century”) or evocative but unsatisfying one-second snapshots (“Round the Hairpin”). And even if there are a few serious guitar-pop rave-ups here, they’re so few and far between that they mostly make me miss the last album’s endless supply of rickety Fall riffs.
It would be an absolute dick-move to accuse the Long Blondes of trying to ingratiate themselves with some global hipsterati by teaming up with a douchebag DJ and making synthpop; I claim no shining insight on their motives. But I can comment on the results, which find a hugely promising band speeding dizzily away from their own strengths. Last time around, I compared them to Elastica. This time, they’re lucky to end up with Sleeper.