Who could have guessed, as the first decade of the new millennium came on like a clean slate, that the Clientele would have a multi-album career in them? A follow-up to the band's 2000 singles collection, Suburban Light-- so ingratiating and familiar it felt like the distillation of some heartsick indie-pop ideal-- seemed less impossible than superfluous. When something feels perfect, you don't necessarily want want xeroxes, however much you may think you want more in your life. Yet here we are, as the first decade of the new millennium slumps to an ignoble close, with the fourth Clientele album. (Fifth, if you count Suburban Light.) And thankfully the band never really did attempt to reconjure the magic of those early singles, perhaps realizing that leaning on the same reverb-blurry signature would have dimmed the original's charm. What made the Clientele special proved surprisingly durable across multiple releases, fidelity upgrades, and songwriting shifts.
That special something at first felt impossible to convey. Atmosphere. "Vibe." Put on a Clientele record and you're entering a space, one crafted as much through sound as lyrical associations, which tend toward the kind of quasi-cinematic string-pulling that makes for the band's own brand of enjoyable cliché. It's lonely without tipping into alienation. It's in tune with the power of memory without being deadened by generic nostalgia. It's someplace where changes in the weather can leave people dumbstruck. And if the music itself were a hair more melodramatic, its wistfulness would probably be unbearable. But the band's restraint, skirting emotional didacticism while still providing room for listeners' own specific states, appeals to humanity's more evanescent (and maybe pop-resistant) feelings. If you're never going to hear unfettered joy on a Clientele record, they're never woe-is-me slogs, either.
That said, despite the band's admirable disinterest in repeating themselves, Bonfires stumbles when the Clientele ditch the musical framework they've perfected to carry these less-than-obvious emotional states. For new listeners, think heartsick, echo-wobbly strum carried along (just barely) by the shuffle of 1960s AM gold. The Clientele are not, despite the guitars and their era-specific sound, a rock'n'roll band. You can't imagine them whipping a club full of Hamburg drunks into a chair-flinging frenzy. That sort of energy sounds feigned and forced coming from a band known for music fragile enough to be shattered by a forceful cough from the audience. Bonfires tracks like "I Wonder Who We Are" and "Sketch" are stiff approximations of cutting loose. If not quite as cheesy as interstitial music in a Mike Myers vehicle, they're still pretty ersatz.
Still, we're talking a handful of uptempo misfires out of 12 tracks. The Clientele aren't vain or foolish enough to try rocking out for a whole album. And even the ersatz shit sounds lush as hell. If the early Clientele singles made a virtue of trad indie pop's innovation-through-cheapness recording values, those values actually added to the music's character-- reverb can cover a lot of empty space on both the songwriting and production end of things-- then maturity as a band (and slightly bigger budgets, presumably) made that Clientele-specific sense of place all the more 3-D. The sound of Suburban Light was as smudgy as a head under the effects of cheap wine. Bonfires retains just enough of a fuzzy edge-- a Clientele album without fuzz would be the work of another band entirely-- while its clearer bursts of guitars, bells, organs, piano, strings, and horns lend a gentle eeriness, like bright radio melodies heard through the bleary ears of pre-coffee early morning.
Crucially, in terms of this tension between clarity and fuzziness, fire and varying intensities of late-summer light seem to have replaced rain and early spring's lingering dimness as the band's go-to tropes this time out. Bonfires is an indian summer record if ever there was one, music for the dizzying strangeness of unseasonable warmth as the trees begin to brown and sweaters come out of storage. The title track conjures images of watching kids through sleep-deprived eyes as they crowd around piles of burning refuse, the guitars peeling and quavering like weak flames. Frontman Alasdair MacLean even drops the line, "late October sunlight in the woods," if you needed a no-nonsense scene-setter. The next track's called "Harvest Time", a similar late-decade thickening of the band's patented murmuring drift, paring the lyrics down even further to leave just wordless long notes that hover between grown-ass swoon and little boy longing. But that title, though: Throughout Bonfires, it's as if the band's trying to beat the synesthetes at their own game, making an album impossible to describe without using colors like ochre and umber and sunset red. You may not be able to recall its melody without prompting, but damned if you wouldn't be able to describe the image it paints with lyrics you could inscribe on a matchbook.
The best of the Bonfires extends the Clientele's great project: building, through hyper-evocative descriptive fragments and music to match, one of the great imaginary places in pop. The Clientele's suburb is obviously the product of an English coming of age, but it's also just dreamily vague enough to mirror the lives of listeners almost anywhere. (Unless you happen to live in one of those William Gibsonish fourth-world megalopolises with no green spaces.) The vibe of Bonfires is strong enough to almost feel the leaves crunching underfoot and smell the smoke cutting through the growing chill in the air, an indie-pop equivalent to Brian Eno's windswept and stone-solid world-building circa On Land. It's not an album you can dance to, but it's one you can live in and with, alone, which is rare enough to be applauded. The band's steadily curated one of the decade's great bodies of mood music. In an odd way, it strikes me as almost cousin to Sufjan Stevens' quixotic attempt to bring each state in the union to life: The Clientele seem to be trying to capture the light and air and meteorological conditions and attendant emotional baggage of each season, with a disarmingly straight-faced grace and wonder that makes it one of pop's more laudable long-term career moves.