Almost two years ago, the British band The Clientele was preparing to release the confidently sweet and sad Bonfires on the Heath, its fifth album (and one of its best) in a decade.
Bonfires was a sharp, smart Clientele record, with frontman Alasdair MacLean's languid vocals pulled like gauze over some of the band's most refined and rigorous arrangements ever. There were some firebrand guitar solos, some inescapable hooks and some elliptical, sun-washed images. But it was, by and large, another album by The Clientele, an outfit that's made such consistent, unified and unerringly good albums for the last dozen years that Bonfires' brilliance felt expected or, at worst, predictable.
On a fall day in 2009, the gentle but warm MacLean reflected on his feelings about the album, which was being released around the same time as a spate of Beatles rereleases that drove a new era of Fab Four catalog sales. He seemed ready for something different.
"I think The Clientele are one of probably about six million bands who formed to be bigger than the Beatles, you know? That was our plan," MacLean told me. "You realize that that's a bit more of a full-on hope each year. I still love their music so much, but in terms of what they represent, they're baffling and overwhelming as well."
At that point, MacLean seemed committed to giving up on The Clientele. He said Bonfires was likely their last record, aside from an EP to follow early the next year. The Clientele had been the band of his youthful ambition, and now its legacy was following him into middle age with little more than a cult's worth of fan adoration and a string of venerable, critically lauded records that had made him neither Lennon famous nor McCartney rich.
As it happened, MacLean was more than a year into work on the Street of the Love of Days, the debut album for Amor de Días, his collaboration with Lupe Núñez-Fernández, of the band Pipas. Amor de Días operated as a bit of a collective, in regard to personnel and music. MacLean and Núñez-Fernández called in favors and contributions from two decades of acquaintances and friends, and they wrote songs that more than hinted at their pasts but found bright new corners, too. On "Stone," Núñez-Fernández sings in a whisper through a monolithic haze, her gorgeous coo given over to the sort of drift The Clientele once made with electric guitars and analog hiss. On the title track, though, MacLean springs like a schoolboy over a cheap electronic beat, harmonizing above a whimsical keyboard that suggests he's leaping forward, past the doldrums of The Clientele.
Amor de Días likely won't make MacLean bigger than the Beatles. It's patient, steady music that's psychedelic but elegant, lush and paradoxically economical. More than a third of the songs are two-minute miniatures, dainty little glimpses of international pop that enter and exit like moments of déjà vu. Even the album's most danceable moment, "Bunhill Fields," is a slight, understated creeper whose dark-hearted strings and barely blue horns have more in common with Núñez-Fernández's voice than the beat that bounces beneath.
But it does stretch MacLean's context beyond the comfortable confines of The Clientele, showing that he's able to work beyond the stately, reserved mannerism that's, yes, made that band so good for long but has also limited their room for growth. Amor de Días even covers "Harvest Time," one of the most memorable (and quintessentially Clientele) tracks from Bonfires. Here, MacLean puts down his electric guitar, offering knots of notes from his Spanish guitar as he eases through the verses. When he hits the chorus, he pauses, sinister strings cutting through samples of birdcalls and drums that march slowly. It's a flourish that makes a once-fine pop song a bit more obtuse but ultimately more exploratory, as if MacLean has, at once, realized that his reach is finally equal to his grasp.