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Reissue Of The Week

Reissue Of The Week: Therapy?'s Semi-Detached
JR Moores , October 27th, 2023 07:33

Forget OK Computer, says JR Moores, Therapy?'s fourth major label album, Semi-Detached, which is finally getting a standard vinyl release, tells us more about the late 90s and beyond

According to critical consensus, Radiohead's OK Computer was the album that quintessentially captured our collective feelings of pre-millennial dread. Writing on the twentieth anniversary of that cheerless opus, Pitchfork's Stuart Berman argued that Radiohead had even predicted the dismal future that once lay ahead of us and within which we now flounder inescapably. That might be accurate (although at least some of Berman's points were tongue-in-cheek). But was Thom Yorke really the 90s' incarnation of Nostradamus? On 'Exit Music (For A Film)' he was writing about a centuries-old fictional romance. The sentimental ham!

The fanfare that's surrounded OK Computer since its release has muffled the praise deserved by a record that came out the following year: 1998's Semi-Detached by the punk-metal-alternative-rock band Therapy? Their fourth album has finally been issued on LP, its only prior vinyl version being a limited boxset of multiple seven-inches which is, let's face it, the most ball-aching way to listen to a full album. This seems like the perfect opportunity to show how Therapy? leader Andy Cairns' state-of-the-nation prophetic genius has been criminally overlooked.

1) 'Church Of Noise'

Christianity has been on the wane since well before John Lennon observed that The Fab Four were hipper than that fit bloke with the stigmata in all those church windows. In Northern Ireland, where Therapy? formed, sectarianism has also eased, something which until only recently was unimaginable (with no thanks to Brexit). On the flipside, where it should have heralded a new dawn, free of superstition and bigotry, greater secularisation has left us with a spiritual void which is inadequately satiated by the total noise around us, a chaotic cacophony made up of different multimedia all screaming for our attention. We have false idols like Love Island contestants and spreadable Biscoff. The prosperous seek mental solace by hoarding overpriced wellness tat from Guru Paltrow. It's no wonder teenagers are vaping themselves into catatonia and gaffer-taping Skullcandy headphones to themselves in an attempt to drown out all the existential confusion with ASMR recordings of Emilia Clarke reciting the shipping forecast. Maybe if one of the infinite denominations of religion had delivered on its hopeful promises in the first place, we wouldn't be in this mess. The B-side to the 'Church Of Noise' single is called 'Suing God'.

2) 'Tightrope Walker'

This is the first of several songs on which Andy Cairns comes across like Williams Hogarth or Blake did in their own times with scenes of squalor and dark satanic mills. In its lyric, a sleep-deprived Cairns wanders past the empty factories which line "piss city", gasping for clean air and avoiding the "the pig's-ear people". As with other moments on the record that use spoken-word on the verses (or else have mumbling in the background of the thick distortion), 'Tightrope Walker' provides the link between the post punk sprechgesang vocal style of the late-70s and its more recent revival by the younger acts who use it to articulate their own disillusionment.

3) 'Black Eye, Purple Sky'

"I just wanna know/ Is it gonna be the same?" Chances are, things can only get worse. Foreshadowing further problems that were about to blight the wider music industry, A&M Records folded shortly after the release of Semi-Detached and Therapy? had to bankroll the album's promotional tour themselves. Some of the labels that sniffed around afterwards advised Therapy? to adapt their sound to the then-trendy style of nu-metal. Ballyclare's Andy Cairns in a backwards baseball cap exchanging rap bars with Shifty Shellshock? Doesn't bear thinking about. A new life of independent graft beckoned, as it did for many others. 'Black Eye, Purple Sky' describes the morning after a boozy night out but it also foretells the music business' state of permanent hangover.

4) 'Lonely, Cryin', Only'

Advancements in technology and globalisation were supposed to make people more connected. The World Wide Web provided more information than anybody could wish for. Where did it lead us? Down conspiracy rabbit holes. Into arguments with friends, family members and strangers on social media which are rarely anything less than poisonous. Towards the barbed embrace of radicalising algorithms. Godwin's Law gone ballistic. Statistics show that people, young and old, are much lonelier. Since the 1990s the proportion of those who can name six close friends has lessened significantly. Later on the album, another song will end with the words, "If you're looking for trouble/ You can find me on the internet, motherfucker."

5) 'Born Too Soon'

This is one of the more optimistic songs on what is otherwise a disc of gloom. Well, not its verses. They recall haunting memories, repeated mistakes and the "never ending chain of bitterness". These cycles can be broken and overcome, however. When they made this tune, Therapy? had in mind emo rockers The Promise Ring. Closer attention to its chorus reveals its anticipation of Taylor Swift's 'Shake It Off' and 'Let It Go' from Disney's Frozen. Then again, even those anthems of self-defiance could be interpreted as futile moments of resilience in the face of the unforgiving void.

6) 'Stay Happy'

A riff on the sad clown trope, this song concerns those who make for hilarious social company yet remain desperately sorrowful inside. Stay happy? Easier sung than done. There is no need to list here all the comedians and other funny fuckers we've lost through their own helpless self-destruction since 1998.

7) 'Safe'

By this point it should be apparent that Semi-Detached is one of the most misanthropic albums of the late-90s. According to Cairns, 1994's Troublegum had been the sound of an angry, overweight, anorak-clad loner screaming into the mirror. With its seedy character pieces, the following year's Infernal Love has its reputation as the darkest Therapy? album. Sounding livelier than its gothy predecessor, Semi-Detached was influenced by Hüsker Dü, The Stooges and Rocket From The Crypt. Yet in some ways its content is even bleaker than before. In the mid-90s Andy Cairns had nearly lost his mind, and definitely lost a drummer. (Fyfe Ewing quit in 1996.) Cairns had been through his showbizzy period of cocaine indulgence. On Semi-Detached he has emerged from the shallow cocoon of backstage parties and fancy hotels. He has removed the shades worn on the cover of Infernal Love. He has stepped outside to pound the shit-ridden pavements. In the sensory overload of sobriety he has observed a country and its people in abject ruin and reported back on how grim it all is. Kerrang!'s reviewer was reminded "what a miserable bugger he is". The misery here is different though; less internal and solipsistic. It's more concerned with others, the wider world and its countless problems. Cairns said he was channelling "frustration" now, in place of "blind hatred".

8) 'Straight Life'

"This city's buzzing with bastards" shouts Cairns, metamorphosising into 1998's answer to Travis Bickle. He also sees "cancer tans and plastic disasters". Botox and cosmetic surgery were then still something of a novelty. They would later explode in popularity via reality television, Instagram and internet pornography. Cairns also observes the "wannabes and users and makers", a possible reference to The Spice Girls and their Svengali manufacturers. Just around the corner lurked the culturally devastating music and TV empire of Simon Cowell.

9) 'Heaven's Gate'

Taking its title from the Heaven's Gate cult in America, this song raises broader questions about where we place our faith, what is being sold to us, and how. Speaking of which…

10) 'Don't Expect Roses'

Whereas Radiohead's 'Electioneering' expressed cynicism about the political campaigning of 1997, Cairns was more concerned with what would come next. 'Don't Expect Roses' was written about New Labour's victory and "how people shouldn't expect things to change overnight". Was he also warning us that the party would inevitably let down those who voted it into power? It's worth bearing in mind as history, we are told, is due to repeat itself.

11) 'Tramline'

During the Troublegum/ Infernal Love period, Cairns had narrowly avoided turning into, as he put it, "a rock 'n' roll Gazza". He had grown sick of his own rockstar bullshit, the bullshit of other rockstars and the bullshit of people who weren't even rockstars in the first place but behaved like they were. The twats. Besides, DJs and dance acts were the new rockstars, such as The Prodigy who Therapy? had in mind when working on the music to 'Tramline'. As if to emphasise that point, for Steve Lamacq's Evening Session they recorded a cover of 'High Noon' by DJ Shadow. David Hepworth's book on the golden age of the rockstar ends earlier than this, with the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994. And who are we left with now? Alex Turner or Matty "measly" Healy? Bullshit multiplied.

12) 'The Boy's Asleep'

After all that woe, both contemporary and forecast, it was a good idea to end on a lighter note. "Thanks for coming/ Mind your step on the way home," croons Cairns on the ballad that was oven-ready to end Therapy?'s live sets for a time. To his wife, Kristina, on this song it finally sounded as if Cairns might have made peace with himself. "Find a God," he advises at the end of one chorus. "And thank him."

Semi-Detached is out now via Music On Vinyl