The Clientele’s I Am Not There Anymore follows 2017’s Music for the Age of Miracles (which arrived after a seven-year hiatus for the band), with new recording sessions beginning in 2019 and continuing piecemeal until 2022 —in part due to the pandemic and also because the band wanted the space to experiment. “We’d always been interested in music other than guitar music, like for donkey’s years,” vocalist/lyricist/guitarist Alasdair MacLean says. This time out, he — alongside bassist James Hornsey and drummer Mark Keen — incorporated elements of post-bop jazz, contemporary classical and electronic music. According to MacLean, “None of those things had been able to find their way into our sound other than in the most passing way, in the faintest imprint.”
This stretching out — what MacLean calls “a leap forwards and to the side” — can be heard clearly in “Blue Over Blue,” with its percussive samples and its moments where the arrangement opens up suddenly into something cinematic in scope, with horns and strings. “What happened with this record was that we bought a computer,” MacLean explains. Under the old Clientele way of recording, a tricky song like “Blue Over Blue” might’ve eaten up all their studio time, as they worked out the time signature and the instrumentation. For I Am Not There Anymore, though, the trio would lay down a few tracks and then take them home to play around, trying out different arrangements before returning to the studio to finish recording all the little instrumental enhancements.
“Blue Over Blue” depicts MacLean’s scary adventure of being lost in the woods with his son, he explains: “‘Blue Over Blue’ is about getting lost in the woods on Hampstead Heath on an autumn day with my two-year-old son on my shoulders—he loved it and wanted to play hide and seek. I knew he was a ticking time bomb as I had no food with me and was trying to find my way back to a path.” The accompanying video sees the band adorned in armor beneath beautiful and abstract artwork.
Over the 32-year career of the pop band The Clientele, critics and fans have often described their songs with words like “ethereal,” “shimmering,” “hazy,” “pretty” and “fragile.” MacLean, though, has his own interpretation of the effect his music creates. “It’s that feeling of not being there,” he says. “What’s really been in all the Clientele records is a sense of not actually inhabiting the moment that your body is in.”
I Am Not There Anymore regularly evokes what MacLean calls “the feeling of not being real.” A lot of the lyrics were inspired by MacLean’s memories of the early summer in 1997, when his mother died. Though the album functions as MacLean’s way of mourning, he notes that he’s not the kind of songwriter who ever sits down with a theme in mind. It’s more that “the music will bring images and then those images link of their own accord.” It’s a general mood he’s chasing with these loosely connected recollections. (For more of MacLean’s impressionistic words, spend some time with his book Exhaust Fumes, Magnolias & Light: Selected Lyrics 1997-2021, published by Edge of the Lane Press.)
The result is a 19-track journey that extends from light bossa nova beats to the Clientele’s classic chamber pop, with Keen’s live drums weaving around programmed drum and bass samples to create something polyrhythmic and avant-garde. Keen is also responsible for the spare and lovely instrumental interstitials that appear throughout the LP — all called “Radials,” as in “the spokes from the center of the wheel.” They “change the focus in between songs,” according to MacLean. “Without those tracks, everything might be a bit too heavy. They make you look away for a little while so you can look back again later.” There’s a similar purpose to the cover image, taken from the 1823 Kameda Bōsai painting Long Life. It’s both a beautiful piece of abstract art and a poem about, in MacLean’s words, “the distance and surprise of getting older.”
As MacLean says, I Am Not There Anymore is all about “the memory of childhood but at the same time the impossibility of truly remembering childhood… or even knowing who or what you are.”