Teenage Fanclub’s gifts for pop songwriting are something to behold.
Power-pop is a deceptively difficult subgenre to get a handle on. On the surface, it would appear that power-pop bands are all about sweet, simple pop hooks, but when one digs deeper, one sees the sadness and – occasionally – the despair hiding underneath. There’s a balance that needs to be struck in power-pop, and at their best, Teenage Fanclub do this better than anyone else. Their best work (such as the essential Bandwagonesque and Songs From Northern Britain) present sweetness and sadness in equal measure; their lesser work ends up being either too saccharine or too despondent. Here largely manages to avoid those pitfalls, but it sounds more like the work of a comfortable band than a trailblazing one.
The cover of Here is a serene image of a waterfall in the wilderness, and it may very well be the best metaphor for the album as a whole. Here is a wholly pleasant listen throughout, its organs and jangly guitars giving the impression of a vacation or a retreat. Opener and first single “I’m in Love” channels the feeling of the warmth and comfort, not only of being in love (what else would a song with that title be about, after all?), but also the comfort that the sort of classic pop they’re reinterpreting gave to a generation of listeners. Norman Blake, Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley (all of whom share lead vocal duties) act as rays of sunshine, reminding both their subjects and their audience of happiness, love and all the good things in the world. When Blake makes his plea in the chorus of “The Darkest Part of the Night,” he does so with a sense of understanding and a desire to make it all okay.
It’s not all sweetness, though, as Here finds time for moments of emotional complexity. “I Have Nothing More to Say” both features an atypical arrangement for the band and statements of real longing from Love. McGinley, meanwhile, offers “Steady State” as an eerie contribution to the band’s oeuvre. Moments like these break the monotony both musically and lyrically, something that Teenage Fanclub have actually struggled with in recent years (most notably on 2005’s surprisingly dour Man-Made). It’s here where the album is elevated to greatness at certain moments.
While Here is often great, though, it still feels as though the band are holding back. It would be foolish to expect the band to make something like Bandwagonesque again (especially considering they tried that with Thirteen, and it didn’t really work), but Here doesn’t have that sort of spontaneous energy that Teenage Fanclub’s best work often has. At their finest, Teenage Fanclub seem like spontaneous pop savants capable only of communicating in sunny harmonies and inescapable hooks. At times, though, their songs can feel workmanlike, as if the band are craftsmen executing a well-tested formula. This doesn’t entirely diminish the work that they do, but when one knows that Teenage Fanclub are capable of excellence, “pretty good” seems like a let-down.
Having said that, anyone who is a fan of the band, or guitar pop as a whole, will find something enjoyable about Here. Even at their most rote, Teenage Fanclub’s gifts for pop songwriting are something to behold. Few bands are so naturally effervescent as this, and even fewer can write this kind of music without it seeming like a put-on or pastiche. This is Teenage Fanclub, and this is what they do.