Album review: The Charlatans – Modern Nature

When it comes to bands, I’m the loyal type. Once a certain level of enjoyment and commitment has been achieved I rarely give a group up, however many years and dubious albums go by. I could wax lyrical about the pop-Goth favourites I’ve never let go, or the devotion that made me see Suede on every tour (which believe me, most didn’t), but I’m here to talk about The Charlatans, who - in the spirit of such steadfastness and the sheer enjoyment of the experience - I’ve seen live more often than any other group.

Of course, living until recently on their Manchester home turf helped; there was a period a few years ago when barely three months went by without an opportunity to see them cropping up. And the Charlies are a hard-working band – anyone truly dedicated will have been able to see them a lot more times than me. But what’s kept me coming back to them again and again, even when their artistic peak has seemed further and further behind them, is the unparalleled joy of their live show, which I was slow (and Gothic) enough to only witness for the first time in 1998.

What I experienced then (and 25 times since) – the exuberance of Tim Burgess’s frontman-ship, the careering of their trademark organ, the communion of shouting every word of North Country Boy – for me hasn’t been matched in the studio since 1999’s heart-breaking Us and Us Only. In recent years, each new release has chipped away a little at my pride in being a fan; ‘too much falsetto’, ‘sounds a lot like The Charlatans’ and ‘God, this is awful’ being some genuine responses to releases over the last decade. So it was with some trepidation that I bought their first album for five years, and since the sad death of drummer Jon Brookes, Modern Nature.

I was familiar with the first three tracks from online previews and radio play, and while a bit dubious about So Oh, which seemed something of a chorus without a song, and the monotonal vocals of the ironically-named Talking in Tones, had been encouraged by the release of third track Come Home Baby. Now this was the Charlatans I knew and loved: rolling bassline, rousing chorus and something of the blue-eyed soul to the vocal. Subsequent album track Keep Enough also has a certain familiarity: a pared-down, funky interlude of a song reminiscent of the direction first taken on 2001’s Wonderland LP.

The ‘70s organ sound is carried through to In the Tall Grass, but both songs share So Oh’s sense of being a groove and a chorus rather than a whole song. The sound is appealing but there’s a feeling of not quite having taken off, thankfully rectified when we get to Let the Good Times be Never Ending. Almost a partner song to Come Home Baby this is as Charlatans as could be in sound and structure, but again the vocals stop it reaching the old highs. Tim simply doesn’t sound like he means the song’s sentiment, and just when you expect him to join the song’s gospel crescendo it fades out - Mr. Burgess has left the party early.

That there should be any reticence or sadness in Tim’s voice, given the events of the last few years, is completely unsurprising and understandable, but it’s a shame. The sense that he’s holding back sits uncomfortably with the apparent bid for elevation and triumph in the songs’ instrumentation, and while many are short and quite simplified the album does work well as a soundscape. As it draws to a close, however, the downbeat, spacey vox finally sits perfectly with stand-out tracks I Need You to Know and Lot to Say.

It may rarely be the case but, for me, The Charlatans are at their best when they sound melancholic. I Need You to Know ticks all the boxes - brooding tone, sweeping strings, minor key - it’s straight out of mid-80s Goth and I love it. While Trouble Understanding also takes me back to that period its piano is more Johnny Hates Jazz or Hue and Cry, but the clock turns a lot further back for album closer Lot to Say.

Here Tim’s vocal truly comes into its own, with a dreamy harmonisation close to The Beatles’ Because if they’d layered it over Magical Mystery Tour’s Flying. Taking the band full circle, back to their roots on the coat-tails of ‘60s-inspired baggy, it’s an uplifting and appropriate end to an album inscribed simply as “…dedicated to Jon Brookes” – and a welcome addition to the racks of their loyal followers.