Alasdair MacLean is busy doing a lot of nothing on Suburban Light. At any given point on the compilation that served as the Clientele’s proper breakthrough, he’ll be staring out his window, walking his dog, aimlessly bicycling through town, contemplating the change of seasons and watching rain fall in a seemingly endless drizzle. Most consumers of indie music, literature, or film have no issue with writers going in depth about boring shit — provided that they reveal the magical in the mundane, something to counterbalance the constant fireworks of mainstream pop. But that’s not what the Clientele did on Suburban Light, released 20 years ago this Saturday. In fact, the most risky and rewarding thing that MacLean did as a songwriter was to romanticize wasting time by making it sound exactly how it feels.
The 20th anniversary of Suburban Light really snuck up on me — unlike most of the albums we’ve covered in this space lately, it did not leave an indelible imprint on the later months of 2000. The bulk of Suburban Light had already been scattered across 7″ singles and EPs from 1997 to 2000, on British labels that no longer exist. Nor has the album existed in a continually fixed state; Merge re-released Suburban Light in 2001, swapping out three tracks and replacing the cover with a blurry cityscape that felt more coherent with the music therein than the original’s striking and stylized black-and-white photograph. But when Merge put out a subsequent, remastered deluxe version in 2014, the Pointy Records cover and tracklist were restored, relegating “6am Morningside,” “What Goes Up,” and “From A Window” to bonus cuts and introducing Americans like myself to the truly wonderful A Fading Summer closer “Saturday.”
Granted, there’s something intentionally timeless about the Clientele’s reference points anyway: late-’60s psychedelic pop acts like the Zombies and Donovan that are way weirder and cooler than they’re often given credit for, bedsit indie icons like Felt or Galaxie 500 (albeit without their respective aura of mystery and college rock cred). I also didn’t discover Suburban Light until 2004, when it clung to the bottom end of Pitchfork’s mid-aughts Best Albums list at #92 and such things were still valuable discovery tools in the pre-streaming era. Without making any reference to what the Clientele actually sounded like, Mark Richardson offered one of the most enticing endorsements of an album I’ve ever read: “When your parents complained that you didn’t live in the real world, this is where you were hiding.”
But throughout Suburban Light — and really, most of the Clientele’s work — there’s an unmistakable sadness in recognizing the unsustainable nature of this existence. As alluring as these songs could be — “We Could Walk Together” is a summer crush song rewritten for indoor kids who continually long for autumn — nothing here feels like a call to arms, an invitation to imagine an escape from a world whose pace and demands continue to perpetually escalate out of control. MacLean is so lost in his head here, so distant to those around him, that it’s not his parents but his peers giving him a stern talking-to. “My friends say I’m wasting all my time,” MacLean sighs on “Monday’s Rain,” and he doesn’t really contradict them. “But tonight, I watch the world/ Sunday evening’s cars and girls/ And Monday’s mine.”
Zoom out far enough and the Clientele align with the ensuing decade’s general shift towards sentimentality and whimsy, often viewed as a coping mechanism for the Bush era’s atrocities: i.e., freak-folk, Animal Collective, Wes Anderson, the majority of “blog-rock” with its glockenspiels and exclamation points, all of which created an environment where Smile could finally get a legitimate commercial release. But while the Clientele were certainly dreamers, they never really had the same longing for arrested development; MacLean always wrote about adults (mostly himself), and mostly in the present tense. When he does flip through his mental photographs to recall lost love — frolicking through the park, an autumn night when stars fell like rain — the ache feels fresh enough to make those events appear fairly recent in a temporal sense. No one in a Clientele song wishes to be a child again, but rather, embodies an alternate, literary fantasy where poets are essential workers, craftsmen who put in an honest, useful day’s effort similar to the construction crews MacLean watches with bemusement on “Reflections After Jane.”
The lyrics on Suburban Light are florid and romantic (in all senses of the word) enough to be reflexively called “poetic” without further thought: “Our eyes so full of evening and amphetamine,” “Grass, soaking and warm, past the iron gates, August has come,” “Why do hummingbirds just hum their loneliness to me?” One could imagine MacLean penning these in 1850s England (also, Alasdair MacLean is a fucking awesome 1850s British poet name). But take a look at how the lyrics are laid out on the Clientele website, and it’s clear that MacLean intends his words as actual poetry, making unmistakeable and intention choices with meter and line breaks; it’s possible that if poetry books were a more viable distribution platform for MacLean’s thoughts than an indie pop band at the turn of the millennium, I imagine he might have just stuck to that.
But as with Lawrence or Edwyn Collins or, sigh, Morrissey, MacLean’s authorial pretensions are actualized in tandem with the music surrounding it. Suburban Light is much, much more lo-fi and muffled than most music that gets deemed “cinematic” — I’m pretty sure there’s the errant sound of a punched-in tape overdub during the bridge of “Rain,” and the drum kit frequently sounds like jingling change on the uptempo numbers. But in no way does it ever sound cheap: I’d challenge Daniel Lanois or whoever to come up with a sound as beautiful as the first several seconds of “Reflections After Jane,” or any engineer that can more effectively conjure the sensation of seeing rain tapping against the window.
Besides, a surrealist, five-minute black-and-white short film can be cinema too. Since discovering Strange Geometry‘s “Since K Got Over Me” was actually a ketamine reference, I’ve considered the possibility that “Reflections After Jane” is also about getting high. The cocooning reverb and warm grit of Suburban Light recreates not only the pleasant buzz of getting just the right amount of your preferred intoxicant, but also the side effect of feeling like the lead in a movie of your own life. Indeed, MacLean frequently writes from a slightly disembodied, almost voyeuristic perspective: “Am I just a photograph inside a printed night?,” he queries on opener “I Had to Say This,” with an urgency that often gets overlooked in light of his band’s soft-sell approach. “How I long to live inside a window,” he mutters later on, and even though he spends a lot of Suburban Light literally staring out of his window, there’s a crucial distinction that gets at the inherent allure of the Clientele: What if you could really look at the world as if it were a fishbowl?
Admittedly, my fondness for Suburban Light is tied up in a belief that there’s no way a band like the Clientele would be held in as high of a regard in 2020 as they were in 2000. Yes, I have to remember Suburban Light once battled for attention in the indie-sphere with the loudly hyped and bombastically ambitious likes of The Moon & Antarctica, Internal Wrangler, The Sophtware Slump, Ágætis byrjun, and Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, not to mention Kid A and Stankonia. But even keeping in mind the possibility that a band serving a similar function to the Clientele might not sound like them, I fail to come up with any kind of contemporary analogue. The first Real Estate album springs to mind as a version of the Clientele if Alasdair MacLean grew up in New Jersey — “suburban light” very easily rhymes with “Budweiser, Sprite,” and they likewise got a lot of mileage out of soft-focus twinkle before making exquisite-sounding and frequently excellent albums the moment they had access to a big indie budget. But Real Estate’s music always seemed far more social, more chill, more amenable to pre-parties and festival fairgrounds. Wild Nothing had a similar sonic trajectory over the past decade, but I can’t imagine MacLean ever saying, “I don’t place too much importance on words.”
I also think back to the last time I saw the Clientele live – they did a small quasi-reunion tour in 2014 for the reissue of Suburban Light, four years after their presumptive swan song Minotaur, three years before their eventual return with Music For The Time Of Miracles. There was barely anyone in the audience; it was kind of a bummer. But nothing about Suburban Light, or really anything the Clientele ever did, suggested a communal live experience was ever the point. In fact, Suburban Light is the one album where a livestream would actually be the best case scenario — all of us finally living out MacLean’s fantasy of living inside a window.