(Gorsky Records, out Fri 22 Mar 2019)
Mid-ranking Britpop bands keep returning to the fray with alarming regularity. Few have been able to resist temptation and remain entirely schtum. In Sleeper‘s case, it’s been 22 years since we last heard from them – enough time to settle down, raise a family, and in Louise Wener’s case, get a side career as a novelist.
The final album of their original run, Pleased To Meet You, offered a progression in sound of sorts, a toning down some of Britpop’s giddier excesses. Where that progression has continued here, The Modern Age turns out not bad. Elsewhere, it’s like the past two decades haven’t happened (which for some might be a desire fondly wished).
Anything that opens with crunchy rhythm guitar or a basic riff (Paradise Waiting, Dig, Cellophane) is by-numbers and unremarkable. See also anything that features la-la-la-la-ing (Blue Like You). There’s a few dated keyboard sounds kicking about the place too (Blue Like You again). In fact, although theoretically a decade and a half fresher, these Britpop signifiers sound more tired than the 80s synths that crop up on The Sun Also Rises, lead single Look At You Now and Car Into The Sea.
Lyrically, we’re back in scenester relationship territory: “She was a singer of beautiful love songs… He was cool, you know what I mean… At night he cries into his machine…” (Blue Like You), “What’s that sound? The clubs have all closed down… I love you still, but life can be a bitter pill” (Car Into The Sea). The whiff of 90s Camden lingers.
Where they sound less Sleepery, there’s more to get your teeth into. Look At You Now could be grunge in different hands (imagine Courtney Love snarling the chorus instead of Wener’s slightly buttoned up Englishness). More That I Do is the kind of understated slow-burner Albarn used to sneak amongst the hits on early Blur albums, with a dark side to its lyrics (“I don’t wish you pain, I don’t wish you malice, I just hope that you fuck up more than I do now we’re finished).
The best is saved ’til last though. With Big Black Sun, Wener stretches her vocal range – smoky on the verses, floaty on the choruses – for a moody little number. Joan As Policewoman would do a good version. It’s probably the least appealing to Britpop revivalists, but the best argument for their return being anything other than pure nostalgia. If only they’d moved on so effectively with the rest of the album.