Tim Burgess lets us know from the start how things have changed with him. Tonight's opening two numbers, "NYC (There's No Need to Stop)" and "For Your Entertainment", both from The Charlatans' new album Simpatico, are bulletins from a man who's at the end of his tether with the trappings of stardom.
The rest of the record is similarly embattled, but on more personal and political scores. For 15 years, The Charlatans have provided starry-eyed, bittersweet pop, riding out trends from baggy to Britpop, and the death of their keyboardist Rob Collins. Their idealism, survival, and ever-renewing stock of ecstatic tunes let their gigs ride a wave of affection long after most contemporaries had crashed.
But Burgess is feeling lonely, alienated and anxious about everything from his band to Iraq, which doesn't make for a typically uplifting Charlatans gig.
"Tellin' Stories" and "North Country Boy", from their 1997 high-water mark, are wisely thrown in almost at once. The latter's slide guitar recalls the Ry Cooder of Performance, one of several unselfconscious stylistic borrowings tonight, as the band's love for pop's variety shines through. But it is during "The Architect" that the emotional tenor of their new work is tested, as Burgess sings, "I don't want to die tonight". "I'll Sing a Hymn", from 2004's Up at the Lake, similarly pleads, "I don't want to leave this world without you". The mix of death-haunted anxiety and faith in love gives these new songs a moving transcendence last achieved when Tellin' Stories followed Collins' death.
Still, they aren't pushed at the expense of the band's history. "Can't Get out of Bed" and "Jesus Hairdo", from 1994's chart nadir Up to Our Hips, now sound the classics they always were. The latter favours its Chemical Brothers remix, before "One to Another" confirms the band's bond with dance culture. A piano prelude, rushing choruses and a break that builds till the keyboards and vocals drop back in make the fans respond as if in prayer. By "Crashin' in", they're laughing with strangers.
"When the Lights Go Out in London", a reaction to 7/7, with its lilting reggae beat, gets its message across, but "The Only One I Know", from Madchester's 1990 height, hits an easier nerve. "This one's dedicated to the future," Burgess says, before a teasing build into the late Rob Collins' keyboard riff for 1990's "Sproston Green" defiantly proves that The Charlatans' past and future are both alive.
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