20YAT #28 Tindersticks – Curtains
UK album chart peak: #37
Before Tindersticks’ third album was released, they’d never had a top-40 single, and their previous two albums had, between them, spent just three weeks in the UK top 100 album chart. Adored and revered, they were nonetheless not remotely popular, especially by the standards of their British contemporaries. With that in mind, it’s indicative of quite how deeply Britpop’s tentacles had delved into UK indie music by the middle of 1997 that a band as peripheral as Tindersticks felt obliged to join in: “There was this whole thing about Britpop being this new music, everyone was looking at the UK to find their musical inspiration, and there was so much expectation on what we might do next,” David Boulter told Noisey at the beginning of 2016, recalling the writing of Curtains. “I think we were kind of considered to be a contender. There was a lot of pressure on this album to prove something.”
Thankfully, regardless of pressure, Curtains is not even a Britpop attempt – Tindersticks, one senses, were far too romantic to get swept up in writing about the self-congratulatory kitchen-sink minutiae of British life. After all, their 60s heroes were not John Lennon and Mick Jagger but Scott Walker and Serge Gainsbourg, and accordingly Curtains is a love letter to them both, with its lush, drowsy, elegantly yearning collection of tales about love, lust and desperate dependency.
That said, it’s not a crooner’s album either; the record is just as much about the cinematic orchestration and the smoky atmosphere as it is Stuart Staples’ quivering baritone. In fact, one of Curtains’ finest characteristics is quite how resistant to classification it is, and how literally peerless Tindersticks turned out to be: no other band was making such rich, refined and luxuriously passionate albums in the mid-90s, and few lyricists of any era compare to Staples’ confessional sensuality.
A track like Bathtime, a sort of horny reimagining of John Betjemen’s Business Girls, is distinctive just for the originality of its idea; add to that the doomed romanticism of its lyrics and you have something that still sounds like an complete one-off. Similarly, the small-hours introspection of Dancing, Rented Rooms’ desire mixed with nostalgia, and the coruscating Ballad of Tindersticks, simultaneously so confident in its delivery and yet so self-dismissive (“When do you lose the ability to step back and get a sense of your own ridiculousness? / They're only songs” it shrugs) fill the album with a sense of a band answerable to no one but themselves. That conviction becomes infectious, allowing Tindersticks a couple of mid-album mis-steps while still persuading you you’re witnessing the unfurling of a masterpiece.
Twenty years on, that artistic confidence mixed with isolation leaves Curtains as more an ornate folly on 1997’s landscape than anything more significant. Not that its lack of landmark status detracts from its intrinsic value – on the contrary, its timelessness has made it rather futureproof, a pleasing inversion of so much pop music, for which context is everything.
Despite the dimming of Britpop and Tindersticks’ continued resistance of the movement, Curtains did no better commercially than its predecessors, and subsequent Tindersticks albums, perhaps sensing this, abandoned Curtains’ orchestral intensity in exchange for a sort of pared-down Memphis soul. That shift leaves Curtains now as something of a swansong for Tindersticks’ first phase, perhaps even augmenting the album’s melancholic tone after the fact. At twenty, it’s a minor masterpiece and a fitting (if false) farewell.
Also out this week:
Broadcast – Work And Non Work (Warp). Chart peak #87
Monaco – Music For Pleasure (Polydor). Chart peak #11