Staying In For the Summer: How The New Acoustic Movement Helped Me Navigate My Teens

With the publication of his new book, *When Quiet Was The New Loud*, Tom Clayton seeks to re-assess the oft-derided music of Coldplay, Travis, Turin Brakes et al

I can’t remember exactly when, but there was a moment when I realised much of the music I’d grown up with was Not Cool.

My formative listening years – roughly between the ages of 12 and 16 – ran from 1998 to 2003. I spent them digging the vaguely anxious, mild-mannered cluster of bands the NME called the ‘New Acoustic Movement’ (NAM). Alan McGee, while referring to Coldplay’s debut album Parachutes, rather more memorably labelled it “bedwetters’ music”.

I loved Parachutes (I still do). I doted on White Ladder and No Angel (again, guilty as charged). But these are, alas, Not Cool records – and there’s no getting around the fact they took a kicking from the hipper music press at the time. Two decades on, is it finally time to give the New Acoustic Movement some credit? To many Quietus readers I’m sure the answer will remain ‘absolutely fucking not’. I understand that many people think this music is the worst. But God help me, I don’t. It still sings to my 33-year-old brain; still draws me in with its quiet reassurances. I can’t be the only one. Can I?

In 1999, as Millennium Mania gripped the UK, I was a timid, bookish Westcountry adolescent. I wore braces on my teeth and had recently acquired some desperately unflattering spectacles. I had wavy ginger hair, which girls envied and I hated. With no particular skill for sport, and a magpie mind that couldn’t settle on one subject, I was still scrabbling for an identity as I entered ‘big school’. Music offered a solution: I was an avid viewer of Top of the Pops with a £5 allowance burning a hole in my pocket every weekend. Yet my early visits to Bath’s record shops were lonely and directionless: I had no older siblings, and my friends seemed uninterested in much beyond skateboarding and ‘pranks’ – this, remember, was also the beginning of the Jackass era. My parents’ music was trapped on large, unwieldy discs made of something called ‘vinyl’, a format being trounced from existence by shiny, durable compact discs, which at their peak in 1999, were worth $13bn to the industry. Quickly, acquiring CDs became my obsession too. Initially I explored, with some confusion, ‘Britpop’ – a phenomenon that, by now, was rapidly collapsing under its own bombast. Blur and Oasis had recently released long albums in 13 (1999) and Be Here Now (1997) which demonstrated both their appetite for excess, and their exhaustion with it. The decade would later be described as ‘the last party’. I had arrived at closing time.

Then a young Scottish band, Travis – having only achieved modest chart success with the boisterous Good Feeling (1997) – changed musical direction, releasing a tender mid-tempo single, ‘Writing to Reach You’, in March 1999. For me, it represented a flash of understanding. It was different enough to feel new; to feel like mine. The first verse even cheekily elbowed Britpop’s ribs, asking “What’s a Wonderwall, anyway?” – despite sharing a chord structure with Oasis’s behemoth. It sighed, beautifully, where Britpop had swaggered. I spent happy hours imagining myself into the CD artwork’s moody landscape, bewitched by the thrill of music that spoke back. Luckily for me, there was more to come.

Even at twenty years’ remove, pinpointing who was actually in the New Acoustic Movement is difficult. For a start, it wasn’t much of a movement: it had no stated aims or ethos beyond a certain modesty of character, a complete indifference to fashion, and a knack for ‘classic’ songwriting. Fran Healy’s description of Travis’s second album, The Man Who, as music “for staying in rather than going out” is perhaps more useful: a strapline for the collections forming the NAM’s nebulous core. It also spoke to my drab suburban existence: “Every day I wake up and it’s Sunday”. The record-buying public, now also somewhat jaded by the endlessly extrovert 90s, evidently felt the same: this time Travis broke through, and The Man Who debuted at number five in June 1999. Later that month, the band’s profile was boosted further as a serendipitous deluge greeted a performance of their signature hit, ‘Why Does It Always Rain On Me?’, on Glastonbury’s Other Stage. They returned in 2000 as Pyramid Stage headliners, having scooped Best Album and Best British Group at that year’s Brits. They had also ushered in a quieter, more reflective phase of popular music.

Suddenly it seemed this polite or otherwise inward-looking rock was everywhere – and I lapped it up. David Gray re-released his fourth album White Ladder in 2000, achieving something close to chart ubiquity in the process. Badly Drawn Boy – whose lo-fi mumble-pop and skittish live act was surely the antithesis of Britpop – released the exquisite The Hour of Bewilderbeast, beating Doves’ Lost Souls and Coldplay’s Parachutes to 2000’s Mercury Music Prize. Dido’s No Angel (2001) sold millions, aided by her presence on Eminem’s ‘Stan’ and her grounded, relatable lyrics about cold cups of tea and missed buses. Yet the heart of the NAM lay with two debut albums released in March 2001 on the same label, Source. Turin Brakes’ Optimist LP winningly fused Laurel Canyon folk-rock with queasy millennial sci-fi. But it was an unassuming Norwegian duo, Kings of Convenience, who made the definitive New Acoustic statement. The precise musicianship, crystalline harmonies and gently rueful musings of Quiet is the New Loud retain their potency today. The Kings also provided me with hope: guys wearing chunky knitwear and glasses could make critically-acclaimed records – and have girlfriends, too! Like so many awkward teens do, I had found music to shelter in.

Then, of course, everything changed. Almost immediately, the New Acoustic Movement suffered a fierce backlash, hastened by the emergence of another NME brainchild, the New Rock Revolution (NRR), on both sides of the Atlantic. The Strokes and The Libertines swept all before them in 2001 and 2002. “Last one to the tattoo parlour still likes Turin Brakes”, NME quipped in their review of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s debut. Drowned in Sound dismissed the NAM as a “puritan, regressive… musical dog-tag”. And The New York Times described Coldplay as “the most insufferable band of the decade”. My poor, doomed, uncool CDs. To my shame, I shed them – like I eventually shed my braces and glasses – thoughtlessly relegating them to a bottom drawer in favour of faster, slicker, louder propositions. Before it had really got going, the time for quiet was over.

These days it’s obvious to me that cool doesn’t matter, and that these labels – Britpop, NAM, NRR – are essentially meaningless. Having cautiously brokered some confidence in the intervening years, I dug this melancholy and unfashionable music back out, and didn’t regret it for a second. History has not been kind to this era, and a residual haughtiness lingers on from the time of its demise – but I reckon it’s time to listen again, if you dare. Brush aside the reputation and, yes, the ‘cool’ factor, and the quality of songcraft and musicianship – the sheer strength of feeling – that runs through each one of these records quickly shines through. These bands might not kick as hard, and they might be over-earnest at times, but that doesn’t mean they don’t mean it. Revisiting them for my new book was a true delight; it might be the same for you too. (Don’t worry, we can keep it between us.)

I’ve also realised the coolest thing of all: being kind to that unsure kid you were at the start. Chin up, mate. It won’t always rain on you.

When Quiet Was the New Loud: Celebrating the Acoustic Airwaves 1998-2003 by Tom Clayton is published by Route

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