Across Six Leap Years

Across Six Leap Years is a suitably idiosyncratic anniversary album from Tindersticks. Conceived as a celebration of the band’s twentieth year in recording, it does not include any tracks from their 1993 debut, often feels more somnambulant than celebratory, and comprises a highly unusual track selection, including few fan favourites and two tracks that originally appeared on Stuart Staples’s solo albums.

For many people, Tindersticks evoke an iconography of cliché imagery and associations: smoke-filled cafés, vin-rouge-soaked decadence, seemingly ceaseless melancholy, and the cinematography of Claire Denis’ nocturnal Paris.

Yes, on paper they can sound like annoying shits. However unlike many imitators, their explorations of doomed romance have always been more affecting than affected. Staples and the band are well aware that, in and of itself, merely pouring your heart out to an audience is a pretty boring endeavour. Their songs, cinematic and genuinely moving, also have unacknowledged undercurrents of humour, moments of lightness, relief and self-knowingness that nevertheless do not compromise the sincerity of the lyrical torment. "Dying slowly" croons Staples here in one of his more blackly comic moments of existential anguish, "seems better than shooting myself".

This LP is neither a greatest hits, nor an effort to simply right past wrongs, but seems like an attempt to connect the band’s history and current development, captured through Abbey Road recording sessions of various songs that were "lost along the way".

Opener ‘Friday Night’ was originally developed for Claire Denis’ Vendredi Soir before the band pulled out of making the soundtrack. With warm bass, sparse synth and percussion accompaniment, and prioritisation of mood and atmosphere over song development, it would sound equally at home on the band’s recently released soundtrack for Denis’ Les Salauds. A similar ambiance dominates ‘Marseilles Sunshine’ before the shift in texture of ‘She’s Gone’ and ‘Dying Slowly’ with guitars, splashes of piano and melodic development revealing a very different side of the band to the more atmospheric soundtrack-influenced work.

The melodic thrust of ‘If You’re Looking For A Way Out’, along with the soaring string arrangements and female vocals, provides a welcome reprieve from the sombre mood of the opening tracks.

Most of the songs here offer portraits, in various guises, of the significant changes the band has undergone. The angsty, agitated ‘Say Goodbye To The City’ with a crescendo of mounting tension erupting in a trumpet solo is particularly revealing of the development of their sound. Where the original version on 2003’s Waiting For The Moon had strings taking a much more prevalent role, here they are stripped back, with brass and electric guitar brought to the fore for a more pointed, intense and satisfying arrangement. The version of ‘I Know That Loving’, taken from 1999’s Simple Pleasure, similarly trumps the original, a catchy guitar riff driving the previously strings-lead accompaniment.

The departure of Dickon Hinchcliffe in particular, the architect of the string arrangements characteristic of their early work, left a void which they’ve responded to by significantly shifting their sonic palette over the past three albums. Guitar is now more important, as are brass and percussion instruments. This adaptation has given their sound a wider range and freshness which blossomed with last year’s The Something Rain. This LP feels oddly like both an interlude to, and continuation of that development in their sound.

Tindersticks songs seem to exist in a world of their own with apparently limited relationship to the contemporary epoch. Staples never stops singing about escape, from his invitation to his lover to step into his car and leave with him on the opening lines of ‘Say Goodbye to the City’, reminiscent of ‘City Sickness’, to his yearning to escape the waking world on ‘Sleepy Song’. In contrast to the refreshingly demystifying approach to song-writing of Nick Cave, treating it like an office job and denouncing the myth of writer’s block, Staples normally does not even write his lyrics down. There are not many who could get away the bohemian flights of reverie sustaining many of these songs but they somehow sound more endearing than ever.

Musically, the band’s exploration of their past has less of the melancholy yearning of Staples’s lyrics. This LP’s strength is as a document of change rather than a retrospective. Upon reaching the gorgeous closing track, ‘What Are You Fighting For?’, even Staples is starting to sound optimistic. "There’s a future coming up behind", he sings, and it looks like a more promising one for a band whose recent history has been relatively precarious.

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