Rough Trade, 2008
“Couples” by name and couples by nature, Sheffield’s indie darlings, The Long Blondes, were once discreetly paired up (drummer with bassist, obviously, and guitarist with keyboardist) leaving them looking like the Fleetwood Mac of the North.
While the respective break-ups occurred before the making of the album, it’s of small amusement that in interviews discussing the inspiration behind the album title (the band describe a couples wall in the studio with images of famous pairings), they neglect to admit or recognize the obvious. The only one excluded from inter-band chicanery is that of singer Kate Jackson, and with this knowledge on board, it makes her observations and criticisms that abound throughout “Couples” sound all the more potent.
With their debut Someone to Drive You Home now in the distance, the band have had time to reflect and re-evaluate their sound. Enlisting London DJ/remixer, Erol Alkan to take on the production role has worked to the Long Blondes advantage with “Couples” sounding like the sleek, edgy pop record that they always aspired to make. Being a non-musician, Alkan has the DJ’s keen ability to recognise what makes a good song great, encouraging the band to be inventive and challenge themselves. While it may be easy to lay this new nightclub sass on Alkan’s shoulders, the band have upped the game considerably since their ramshackle beginnings (the band openly admitting to not knowing their instruments before the band formed), showing a maturity in both songwriting and musicianship.
The free-spirited advice on how to deal with love and romance that was once their calling card, has now been replaced with a darker under-current of loneliness, guilt, infidelity, and distrust. The subtext of “Couples“, especially viewed through the eyes of Jackson (via lyricist/guitarist Dorian Cox) is that we’re a product of our times and while we strive to break away, ultimately we get what we deserve. Opening track and first single “Century” paints the cityscape that “Couples” exists in. Musically it sounds like a cross between Reproduction-era Human League, and Liverpool’s Ladytron, all synth-laden and apocalyptic. As the lead track, it’s a bold move that can’t afford to be miscalculated and its choice as first single lends full weight to their faith in the new material, but as the rest of “Couples” plays out, this stab at glacial electronica is merely a bluff.
“Guilt” and “The Couples” pursue the darker side of relationships. The upbeat “Guilt” (which opens with a brief nod to the Pet Shop Boys’ “Love Comes Quickly”) brings an affair to an end, while “The Couples” deals with those who only stay with their partners until something better comes along against the lonely backdrop of being single, with Jackson feeling a misguided envy, “These people have the nerve to tell me their lonely/you’re not lonely, I am baby.” It has a minor key, bittersweet Smiths-like charm to it. Of the two, “Guilt” with its Donna Summer synth-line is the most obvious example of Alkan’s touch at work. In the same way that Mike Chapman turned Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” from bad reggae into disco class, you can clearly picture the original demo for this track before Alkan got involved.
After the punk glam bluster of “Here Come the Serious Bit” and “I Like The Boys” that shows the band are still long and still blonde, the last half of the album is where “Couples” truly begins to inspire and take shape. “Round the Hairpin” is the most exciting and adventurous track on offer (forewarned by a snippet of comedian Kenny Everett at the start of track, advising “ok, enough of this normality”). Underpinned by a hypnotic, krautrock groove, Jackson sounds like a guilty accomplice in the midst of breaking the law, the highlight of a cheap holiday abroad. “Too Clever By Half” is high camp Kylie. Over a Stevie Wonder “Superstition” backbeat and a slinky bassline, Jackson adopts a breathy falsetto, she gets the last laugh, smugly telling the story of how she cheated the cheater — a daytime tele-movie reduced to a three minute pop song. The key line here “I know you’re only doing what comes naturally” is the trap that the majority of the characters in these songs fall into, believing their shallow behaviour is excusable when we live in a world where this is now commonplace.
The final two tracks, “Nostalgia” and the rousing “I’m Going to Hell” pack the strongest punch. The former with its doom-laden piano chords and wistful lyrics completes the cycle that was started with “Century”. Jackson sounding older, wiser, self-aware of the dangers of lingering too long in the past – “I may never have a daughter/’cos I’ve far too much to tell her, far too much to answer for”. These are cutting words, and the song leaves you feeling no illusions about the cold reality of life once those teenage dreams too hard to beat have taken a solid kicking. It would’ve been a brutal but deserved way to end the album here, but the recant in “I’m Going to Hell” is a saving grace, as the band kicks up their heels, unperturbed at their sordid lives in this oh so seedy world, and ride the song out to a raucous and fulfilling finale.
When viewed next to their debut, “Couples” is of a different class and from a different age. The Long Blondes always seemed hemmed in by their own aspirations and you can only go so far with pop culture knowledge and a keen sense of wardrobe. They’ve advanced beyond expectation and have fashioned an artistic statement that is more than just a magnifying glass on our lives but a cultural and historical commentary wrapped up in one. It’s inventive, intelligent and exciting. Pop music with brains, presented with a conviction that is almost unbeatable. With that on their side, The Long Blondes could quite possibly be the most dangerous English band out there.