The Waiting Room
, January 27th, 2016 19:00
The consistent focus upon the relationship between love and the passage of time on The Waiting Room makes for one of Tindersticks' most lyrically pointed records in recent years. This seems clear by even midway through the third track, 'Were We Once Lovers?' in which the struggle between memory and a failed amorous encounter moves from an ephemeral lightness to a tragic weight. "Did I take your number?/Did I call?/Did we spend our loves together?/I can't recall." On the previous track, 'Second Chance Man', the protagonist mourns his incapacity to identify love except when it had already slipped away. He clings to the memory of the beloved, while on 'Were We Once Lovers' forgetting has now become a necessity, a strategy for survival: 'How can I care if it's the caring that killing me?"
While this might superficially sound reminiscent of earlier Tindersticks works, this record, on the contrary, builds on the more recent surge of form inaugurated by 2012's The Something Room. Like their best records, it has its own uniqueness but sounds unmistakably like no other band. Despite a remarkable back catalogue, there's no hint of nostalgia or complacency in their current work. Where the earlier records were characterised by much loved sweeping string arrangements, and more recent records moved brass arrangements to the fore, the new LP has a surprising mix of both strings and brass. The arrangements are artful and beautiful as ever, but also often unfussy and unobtrusive. 'Hey Lucinda' for example is all the better for the minimalism of parts of the song, the pauses and spaces which lends a further intimacy to how Staples and the late Lhasa De Sela's vocals interact with each other. While stylistically very different, 'We are Dreamers' is also given its weight, its, in this case primitive intensity, by unobtrusive instrumentation.
Like the best of Anglophone art pop, Tindersticks' music carries an internal conflict in several senses: it's tightly controlled but often to a point of tension and vulnerability that feels like it could fall apart at any moment. Like, for example, Mark Hollis, Staples's voice communicates a sense of carefully controlled technique but often carried to a point of unstable tension and fragility.
And like the best art pop the passion of the songs is intense but not unbounded. The love songs are deeply affecting, but don't give everything away. Most of the songs are quite closely connected thematically, and carry an emotional intensity, but they're also impressionistic, enigmatic, and playful. Who wants to have everything revealed in a song anyway? And even if they did, is human emotion a flat palette to be simplistically discovered? Too often the appeal to sincerity just ends up becoming a repression of complexity. The tensions between sincere explorations of heartbreak and ironic self-awareness, between differing registers of aesthetic restraint and release, continue to make Tindersticks's songs brim with an intellectual energy as well as a disarming intensity.
Staples's vocals in particular often communicate this tension between controlled restraint, and a sense of release which is often suggestive of moments of emotional fatigue and ironic self-referentiality. This latter vocal affect was perhaps best exemplified by the drunken, somnambulant lines of the Curtains track 'Ballad Of Tindersticks': "When do you ever lose the ability to step back, and get a sense of your own ridiculousness?"). The oscillations between restraint and release come to the fore on the second half of The Waiting Room, particularly on 'We Are Dreamers', featuring vocals from Savages' Jehnny Beth. Her vocals bring the song together, complementing the sense of swagger and eroticism already present with distorted guitars and a primitive drum beat. Staples is taut and anguished on the chorus but delivers the verse lines with a semi-inebriated insouciance, evoking a sense of the emotional apathy and fatigue that eventually comes in the aftermath of an intense heartbreak. In this sense it encapsulates the overall darker portrayal of love on the second half of the album. "Come inside, there's nothing left here: just a table to dance on and a song of ideas." Libidinal investment spills into detached insouciance as Staples's lines evoke a lover exhausted by the pains of love, running out of fucks to give.
The closing track of the LP, 'Like Only Lovers Can', initially sounds like a coda that further deflates the tension, with its lullabyesque descending wurlitzer keyboard line and guitar strumming giving it a lightness of touch. In keeping with the generally grim exploration of love on the second half of the album, it sounds like another set of lovers accepting a bleak fate for themselves. On closer listen, however, it's full of conflict and uncertainty. "Where do we hide, where do we cry, now our waiting place has gone?" A 'space' of waiting has disappeared but the uncertainty remains. Where the state of waiting in the title track, midway through the album, is one of almost certain despair ("don't let me suffer"), here things are less clear-cut. Waiting carries a renewed ambivalence and potential dynamism. It's not only lyrically evoked, but a sense of anticipation informs the music throughout the album. The ominousness of 'We are Dreamers', the krautrockesque motion of 'Were We Once Lovers' (which has an excellent complementary video shot across the Boulevard Périphérique of Paris), the staccato-funk bassline propelling 'Help Yourself'– so many of the songs evoke a nervous anticipatory tension, exacerbated by the recurring themes of damaged love and the uncontrollability of memory and time.
While many of the songs are gloomy as ever they are not cynical or nihilistic in their view of love or other subjects. Nor are they especially sentimental. In fact I'd argue that part of what makes their explorations of love so powerful and unique is a refusal to cede to either sentimentalism or nihilism. In reality, sentimentalism exists as the inverse correlate of hard-edged nihilism. The two apparently opposed tendencies share the same aesthetic terrain. Both positions are facile and risk-free: there's nothing easier than looking at the world and concluding "everything is fucked", nothing easier than looking for temporary solace in sentimental outpourings of emotional porn. The most interesting aesthetic expressions of love have an altogether different response to nihilism, which is not to deny it or simply it accept it, but take up the challenge. In other words, if we're to take the nihilist claim seriously that existence is essentially meaningless, then our conclusion should be an affirmation of adventure: this means that everything is to play for, and meaning is up for grabs. Musical expressions of authentic love, in contrast to its sentimentalisation, entail a struggle for new meaning, by taking a risk, a gamble that's utterly foreign to the safety of sentimentalisation. Tindersticks are truly exceptional in their capacity to keep exploring this aesthetic and thematic terrain with a renewed sense of risk and originality.