Put any success story type near a headset mic and they will start addressing whatever assembled audience - auditorium, video stream, the agora of the ego - about the value of failure. How they failed a million times until success was born in the humus of their n previous attempts. How they were so close to giving up until their mania pushed them over the line to world-changing achievement and how it’s never good enough. They have everything. Unfathomable capital. Corporate power. Great suits. But there is still the challenge of the world to solve. The good money is on them doing it. Thank you, success stories. I hate you.
Tindersticks is currently my favorite band and, while I cannot speak for them, I feel they speak for me. Tindersticks are the premier dance band of failure. These successful TedTalk louts fail to understand failure. Failure is an exhale with no expectation of an inhale. Her walking out the room and the door into the fog you created. The dead silence of a beater car when you turn the key. It is delicious and deadly and the ultimate human emotion. Maybe the only one.
I felt this as I commuted my not-yet-dead beater through the freak ice storm plaguing the American south and ‘Sticks singer Stuart Staples creaks about a ghost in “I Imagine You” over the kind of undulating ambience (Dave Coulter on singing saw) Brian Eno used to make. With each release, Staples sounds like he has removed another layer of veneer from his waver until he is that ghost of which he sings. I fully expected the world to stop when the light went red and it failed to do so.
I have already written about the mitochondrial techno of the album’s thesis statement, opening track, and second single “Man Alone (Can’t Stop the Fadin’) - a drum machine manifesto of man’s inhumanity to progress. I feared they had taken a page from the Nick Cave playbook by temporarily furloughing the drummer with their luminous clockwork cover of Neil Young’s problematic Harvest number “A Man Needs a Maid.” In the original, Young is playing the heel (I think he’s playing) in an attempt to understand the man he doesn‘t want to become. The ‘Sticks inject the classic homewrecker Johnnie Taylor burn that gives doing the wrong thing the best feeling. “It's hard to make that change/When life and love turns strange and cold.”
The drummer finds their sticks finally on the curious cover of Dory Previn’s “The Lady With the Braid” and particularly on the disco protest (name a more classic duo!) rendition of the Television Personalities’ “You’ll Have to Scream Louder” which I presented to my own band as what I want us to sound like now, even if we just play one song forever like a lot of successful bands do. Our own failure will be a failure to do so.
The ice retakes the bloom on “Tue-Moi”, a somber remembrance of the shootings at a Eagles of Death Metal gig at Paris’ Bataclan nightclub in 2015. Sure, they could have narco-boogied up the latter’s “Cherry Cola” to keep with the covers theme, and it would’ve been magic, but sorcery is not the bailiwick of the crestfallen. You feel Staples staring out at that very stage in his mind, or staring at a newly empty apartment, at the empty CAT scan readout of emotional proximity to tragedy. It’s the most touching pandemic hymn about a pre-pandemic event.
The finale, the coda of the remnants of our emotional well being is the winding tension of “The Bough Bends” starting with birdsong. A guitar seemingly discovers itself over the course of its nine minutes, erupting in flares of blinding light as Staples goes on about self-destruction and failings like one of Krapp’s tapes. It is beautiful and cruel, like how the camellias down the street were tricked into blooming by a cold snap only to freeze solid, thaw a little and freeze again. How much suffering can one little flower take and still bear its red against the gray? How much can a person take? And then, how much more? Is it infinite? Are we traversing the golden yardage of forever being halfway there, then half of that, then half of that, without ever arriving? Will we ever stop failing to know? Put that in your TedTalk.
main iconic image by Julien Bourgeois
Tindersticks on Bandcamp