Album of the Month: Clinic’s Subtle Reinvention, ‘Free Reign’

The history of music isn’t exactly flush with examples of bands suddenly finding something new within themselves 15 years into a distinguished but ultimately middle-ranking career. Since they emerged at the turn of the millennium with their debut album Internal Wrangler, Clinic have been known a) for making resolutely idiosyncratic music that’s always been admired without ever quite capturing the affection of the great record-buying public and b) for wearing surgical masks. They’ve made six albums that have enjoyed good reviews without ever quite getting raved about, and generally been respected rather than loved. All of which raises the question: where on earth did this come from?

Unexpectedly, unfeasibly, Free Reign is good. Startlingly good. Album-of-the-month good, in fact, albeit in a month when there wasn’t a shitload of serious competition. As we wrote a couple of weeks back, it’s a fine example of electronic and guitar-based sounds coming together to create something compelling and full of creativity. The temptation therefore is to lay many of the plaudits this record deserves at the feet of producer Daniel “Oneohtrix Point Never” Lopatin, and there’s no doubt that the album is both beautifully produced and full of sonic interest.

But really, the credit has to go to the band, both because Lopatin only produced two tracks — the excellent “You” and “Miss You” — and because for all that the production is lovely, the strength of this record lies in the songwriting. It’s the sound of a band finding themselves and expressing themselves, experimenting with new forms and new directions with thrilling results. It’s always a pleasure when you hear a band trying something new, and while this isn’t a radical departure from Clinic’s previous work — it’s an evolution, not a revolution, to deploy a hoary old cliché — it’s enough of a progression that it’s constantly surprising, no mean feat for a band to whom that particular adjective has rarely been applied.

When we mentioned how much we’d been enjoying this record to a friend at another music blog (which will remain nameless), for instance, he replied with an only-semi-tongue-in-cheek “What, they’ve had a new idea?” It’s a response that’s rather exemplary of the way this record’s been received — Under the Radar, for instance, described Clinic as “as known-quantity as a band can get” in their review of this record, which is probably true but also suggests that the reviewer didn’t actually listen to Free Reign. And anyway, in answer to the question, it’s not so much that they’ve had a radically new idea, more that they’ve taken old ideas and remade them into new forms, striking upon a formula that makes their sound more interesting than it’s ever been.

In a way, you could argue that Clinic have been building up to this record for their entire career — they’ve certainly been heading in a more diverse direction over the course of their last couple of records, embracing a gentler sound that leaves the spikiness of their early-’00s output well behind. And this feels like the moment when a decade’s slow evolution has suddenly come to a definitive conclusion, a moment when everything the band has been working toward suddenly just works, like, say, REM’s Document or Pulp’s His ‘N’s Hers. Few bands have the persistence or security to work at their craft for this long any more, which is a shame, because there are probably plenty of bands out there who have a Free Reign in them but never got to make it.

But anyway, contextual ponderings aside, this is ultimately thoroughly enjoyable listening. As we noted when we discussed Free Reign last time around in these pages, it reminds us of Liars’ similarly excellent WIXIW — not quite as spacey and generally out-there, but full of the same analog synth-y sounds and slightly claustrophobic atmosphere. It manages to be both pretty (especially the opening “Misty” and “For the Season,” both far more delicate tracks than you’d expect to hear on a Clinic record) and also quietly menacing, locking itself into repetitive, hypnotic grooves that are underpinned by insistent basslines and half-heard whispers deep in the mix.

There are moments that are genuinely startling, like when “King Kong” suddenly fractures into a a tremolo-drenched breakdown, then resumes as if nothing at all has happened, or when the otherwise monotone “Miss You” drops briefly into a balladic chorus. The former is the album’s standout track, an immersive lysergic odyssey that goes for barely four minutes but feels a whole lot longer. In a good way. You could say the same about album as a whole — it’s a smidgeon under 40 minutes from start to finish, but leaves you wanting a whole lot more. Where to from here for Clinic? It’ll be interesting to see.

Other albums we loved this month:

Across Tundras — Blood Meridian for Electric Drone Guitar
Emeralds — Just to Feel Anything
Brian Eno — LUX
Prince Rama — Top 10 Hits of the End of the World
Scott and Charlene’s Wedding — Para Vista Social Club