TEENAGE FANCLUB – Nothing Lasts Forever

Teenage Fanclub have come a long way from their humble beginnings on the fringes of shoegaze, and looking back, it’s interesting to observe their gradual shift towards a more melodic sound as Norman Blake and Gerard Love matured as song writers. A trio of releases adjacent to Britpop – 1993’s ‘Thirteen’, 1995’s ‘Grand Prix’ and 1997’s ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ – brought major success and enthusiastic press, and it’s easy to hear why. On those records, the band added a world of melody to their guitar dominated sound, creating the almost perfect 60s homage for the delight of 90s music fans. Decades on, they are albums that still stand up among the era’s very best.

Into the twenty first century with ‘Howdy!’ and beyond, it could be argued that Teenage Fanclub began to appeal only to their committed fanbase, and began to drift further away from their perfect guitar pop and into a bigger retro sixties haze. However, when the material was strong enough, their shimmering guitar lines and perfectly blended harmonies could still create magic.

That’s not always the case with their 2023 release ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’, unfortunately. On the surface, the ingredients that made albums like ‘Man-Made’ (2005) and ‘Here’ (2016) at least partially enjoyable are more than present. Somehow, though, Blake appears to have wandered into a world of musical mediocrity that sounds like a pale imitation of a the band’s past on a selection of songs that, in the main, fail to deliver any decent hooks. The term “phoned in” is in danger of being over-used to describe works that are fairly pedestrian, but in this case, when describing at least three quarters of this twelfth (proper) album from the Fannies, it’s a handy phrase; one that seems worryingly apt.

Things start well enough when ‘Foreign Land’ opens with a burst of feedback, before sliding into a strong adult pop arrangement that’s easily recognisable as coming from Blake’s more than capable hand. Semi-acoustic sounds jangle with a real intent, underscored by a dancing bass, creating the perfect set up for what’s to fill the next three minutes. Predictably, there some some perfect three part harmonies sharing a great melody, and an occasional lead guitar poking through the cracks with a slightly distorted Americana feel, and its all rather lovely. As good as it is – especially with the harmonic notes driving a rather understated lead guitar break, and a swirly organ adding a light psychedelic feel during the coda – it could’ve potentially been better had those harmonies been used more sparingly, maybe reserved for the big chorus hook. Except there isn’t one. ‘Foreign Land’ arrives, ambles politely through a tried and tested melody with those harmonies on show at all times, and then makes its exit just as gently, leaving the listener awaiting something more interesting. It’ll be a fairly long wait.

‘Tired of Being Alone’ has a nice sentiment, dealing with the passing of time and living in the moment. The lyric about taking in the great outdoors and “watching the seasons grow” is perfectly suited to the maturing Fannies and their safe pop sound, but much like the opener, once you scratch below the surface, it all feels depressingly…empty. The harmonies are present, but again, over-relied upon to the point that they actually reach the point of feeling somewhat ineffectual, and the middling rhythm fails to do anything interesting with a potentially good song. Still, if you’re interested in something that sounds like a leftover from 2021’s ‘Endless Arcade’, you’ll probably find something to enjoy. By the third track, things have settled into an overly comfortable mood – you might even call it a lazy rut. The bulk of the arrangement that provides the heart of ‘I Left A Light On’ is barely distinguishable from the previous track. The only discernible difference is the addition of a loud piano, clanged rather heavily and in four/four time, as if the ghost of John Lennon has materialised in the studio and felt like adding one of his fanciest embellishments. Granted, the vocals are nice enough, but there’s very little else to hold the attention beyond those. It’s the sound of a band coasting, and even the harmonies – again, used to the exclusion of any other vocal – start to feel too much like a band playing everything far too safely.

‘See The Light’ fares better due to a slightly perkier arrangement. Yes, the stately four/four rhythm holds firm, but at least the band have actually tried to supply it with a little more spark. One of the guitars takes a higher tone, adding small power pop flourishes to the chiming rhythm, a very retro electric piano dances intermittently above another mid-tempo workout, and an understated saxophone parps – low in the mix, but present enough to give the tune a retro sound of a different kind. It’s a pleasure to hear something that’s very mid 70s joining a late 60s arrangement and still managing to sound very natural. The actual arrangement is an improvement all round; there’s certainly a little more flair, but it still doesn’t disguise the fact that the song is a bit dull, and heavily weighted towards Blake and chums going through the motions in the vocal stakes.

With a compliment of acoustic guitars and an electric piano leading the charge, the breezy ‘It’s Alright’ is a big step up. It’s far from top tier Fanclub, but as far as this album is concerned, it’s a stand out tune. A slightly faster tempo has the benefit of lifting the harmonies, and an occasional counter melody from a solo voice acts as a reminder that the band who delivered ‘Howdy!’ two decades earlier are still in there somewhere. There’s a solid key change for a middle eight and an easy transition back into a fine melody, and even time for an instrumental break, where twin guitars make good on some simple sounds. ‘Falling Into The Sun’, meanwhile, is another number that’s all chiming guitars and harmonies. It never seems too far removed from ‘Tired of Being Alone’, but in fairness manages to be better than that earlier number, since a little more has been applied to the arrangement. Here, a wordless middle eight, harmonic guitar solo and buoyant bass make it a cut above most of the album. There’s also a concession to a relatively catchy chorus hook (finally), which should remind people of how those trademark harmonies can still impress. It’s strange, but had this been placed at the beginning of ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’, it might have helped the album sound a bit more enthused, even though it could never be considered an unmissable track.

‘Self-Sedation’, meanwhile, sticks out like a sore thumb, but actually gives this album another decent tune. Finally breaking away from the chiming guitars on autopilot, the band switches their focus to a stabbed piano – clearly derived from a frivolous McCartney – and shows how well the Teenage Fanclub gift for pop can be applied a Toytown sound. Three minutes of stabbed piano, militaristic drums and rumpty tumpty rhythms, this is the ultimate throwback to 1967. Revisiting the influences that would now be called “Jellyfish-esque”, it’s a piece of uplifting pop that should be heard by retro pop aficionados everywhere. Recognisable as Fanclub by vocal alone, it’s a real joy to hear the band stretching out. Dave McGowan’s lead bass sound is terrific throughout, with a Macca inspired tint and the twin lead guitars, adding a proto-70s melody during the instrumental break, are equally on point. Delivering a far breezier melody than most of this album, the smooth vocals finally sound truly inspired.

After that, of course, it’s back to the safety of chiming guitars and light harmony singing when ‘Middle of My Mind’ shares something that seems little more than a pale imitation of one of ‘Grand Prix’s softer numbers – played with professionalism, but no real enthusiasm – and ‘Back To The Light’ fills time with another four minute jangler that’s practically interchangeable with most of the band’s output since the turn of the millennium. Although ‘Falling Into The Sun’ provided a brief sparkle of something better and ‘Self-Sedation’ dared to be different, it really isn’t enough to hang a whole album upon.

Luckily, ‘I Will Love You’ – the album’s seven minute closer – adds another number that’s actually worth hearing. From its opening notes, the track sets up more of an other-worldly feel; first by applying light bell-like sounds to the usual rhythmic guitar work – shared here with a much lighter touch – and then by adding a few sparsely placed late 70s synth sounds that really grab the attention. The vague, neo-psych sound is a great fit for a performance that offers a solo voice on the verse, before applying the harmonies on a hazy chorus. Holding back the harmonies in this way makes them so much more effective once they arrive, whilst making the decision to stretch the melody allows for a little more interest. It’s the kind of track that deserves a big climax, but in keeping with the rest of the disc, the band chooses instead to simply repeat the melodies until it’s time to fade. The melodies deserved a bigger send off than they ultimately get, and that, of course, feeds into this album’s main problem. The ideas are all pleasant enough, but there’s very little sparkle. ‘I Will Love You’ is an improvement on the norm, but by this point, of course, it’s too little, too late. In a world full of great music that’s available at the push of a button, all but the most committed Fanclub fan will have long given up on this album – probably after the dismal ‘I Left A Light On’ – and gone to find their retro pop fix elsewhere.

There are some nice moments on ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’, naturally, but beyond ‘Self-Sedation’, there’s very little that’ll make an instant impression, and even less that will stick in the long term. The bulk of the band’s music has become so wafty at times that the Fannies’ previous gift for great hooks seems to have all but floated out of an open studio window, on a sound lighter than air. Where are the uplifting, unashamedly feel-good, 60s guitar driven melodies of the peerless ‘Sparky’s Dream’? Or the massive jangle of tunes like ‘Radio’ or ‘Start Again’? They’ve been slowly disappearing, but now it seems that those strong melodic lines and big choruses are (almost) gone for good; left behind, dismissed as the folly of youth. The Byrds-isms of the best bits of ‘Howdy!’ remain here in a few places, but even they seem largely non-committal in a chorus sense. He left the band five years prior to this release but, on this album, the band seem to miss Gerard Love more than ever.

Could a late-comer find more pleasure here than a long time fan? Quite possibly, but even then, this doesn’t even have the musical chops of an album like ‘Here’.‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ is the sound of the harmony driven Fanclub all too often on autopilot, sharing a hazy love letter to the 60s, but over relying on a sound rather than songs. At best, the musicianship is respectable, and the songs thoroughly inoffensive, but this should be so much more. It seldom seems like an album you’d love in the same way as you’ve come to love peak Fannies, or enjoy as any more than background noise during an undemanding late night listen. There are even times when it’s even flat out boring – something a finely crafted slab of rock-pop should never be. With just three strong tracks, this outing from one of Scotland’s finest bands is a far cry from the albums of their 90s peak. Disappointing.

Buy the album here: Teenage Fanclub – Nothing Lasts Forever

September/October 2023