Cards on the table. To these ears, ‘Man Made’ and ‘Howdy!’ weren’t quite up to the ludicrously high standards of ‘Bandwagonesque’, ‘Grand Prix’ and ‘Songs From Northern Britain’. Both records had much to enjoy and a new Teenage Fanclub record is still a bit of an event for me, so just the chance to hear those songs was enough to sustain my interest. But then came ‘Shadows’. Get yourself a new pair of headphones, a suitably vintage alcoholic beverage of your choice and somewhere to put your aching feet because it’s time to truly get lost in the music once again.
As ever, songwriting duties are shared equally between Gerry, Raymond and Norman, even though, as ever, you can’t tell that this stunning set of songs weren’t conceived together. Lyrically, there’s plenty to devour, even if they won’t win any awards for inventive deployment of the English language. “Dark clouds are following you but they’ll drift away” is simple but hugely affecting on ‘Dark Clouds’, a track notable for its complete lack of guitars. “I recorded it with acoustic guitars and I couldn’t quite get it to work so when Euros [Childs] was there I got him to play piano on it, and we just went with piano and vocal and that saved the song. I was feeling a little down when I wrote that lyric,” says Norman. Despite the absence of soaring guitar refrains, it’s a classic example of the Fannies’ knack for comforting melancholia.
First release, ‘Baby Lee’, which you really should have heard by now, continues the band’s long lineage of quite magnificent singles, jangling along at a pace that wouldn’t render it out of place on ‘Grand Prix’, often regarded as their finest record. (It’s not, by the way, that’s ‘Songs From Northern Britain’, which is about as perfect as any album can ever, ever be) Meanwhile, ‘Shock And Awe’ does little to hide its subject matter: Gerry explains that “the title refers to the recent military campaign, but lyrically it’s probably about the idea of conflict, and instinct versus culture. It’s not something we normally talk about in our songs… It’s not some kind of spokesman for a generation kind of stuff, it’s dealing with a small part of life and what people take for granted. And the numbing nature of modern media. It’s hard to talk about it without sounding like Bono or something.” The rolling harmonies of old are all over the track, accompanied by an emphatic string arrangement, although the small aspect that makes it so utterly unforgettable is a small, echoing refrain that cascades across the early part of the song conjuring a sense of the song floating around in front of you. Sometimes words truly can’t do something justice – when you hear it, you’ll know what I mean.
‘When I Still Have Thee’ quite openly states that “it’s a modern hymn for…The Go-Betweens,” and it is a fitting reference to one of the great overlooked groups of the last thirty years. Don’t be put off by the presence of the word ‘thee’ in the title, because it’s actually one of the more lively tracks on ‘Shadows’, and rather beautiful in its simplicity. Meanwhile, ‘Live With The Seasons’ is straight out of the drawer marked ‘Slowly building, effervescent strummers’. The lyric explores our place within nature and how we so often find the weather reflecting our moods and feelings: “there’s an ocean of meaning in a lover’s tear. The wind, snow and rain make me feel you” offers a simple but heartfelt sentiment.
The warm, soulful sound of ‘Sweet Days Waiting’ wouldn’t be out of place on a Richard Hawley record, representing an unusually restrained approach from Gerry. The soft pitter-patter of the drums provide an aural hug while the deliciously saccharine chimes of the lead guitar are like a pack of Love Hearts injected straight into the soul. And, while things end with ‘Today Never Ends’, an oddly sombre instruction to live life in the here and now, it’s the very beginning of this album that marks it out for greatness.
‘Sometimes I Don’t Need To Believe In Anything’ is not only in possession of a fantastically ‘Holy Bible’-era Manics style name, but also a rhythmically soaring chug that simply explodes after eighty seconds into a joyous chorus, with a small but swooping string part diving around behind the repeated refrain of the song’s title. It’s what the Fannies do best: it doesn’t sound like it could seduce a stadium crowd, it won’t garner frequent plays on popular music stations but it will buff the smile of a believer, open the door for the wavering hardcore fan to welcome them back in and, to cut to the chase, offer welcome respite from the more serious business of real life.