The Britpop heroes dodge the nostalgia circuit, their comeback album – released 22 years since its predecessor – reminding us why we loved them first time round. Yet they flounder when they explore new terrain
Whether you’re reuniting to give the nostalgia freaks what they want, or to discover what that experimental post-jazz fifth album you never made might have sounded like, confidence is key – just ask Pixies and Suede. In the ‘90s, Louise Wener would swan into Sleeper songs knowing she was the queen of Britpop’s suburban indie-pop scene. Returning 22 years after Sleeper’s third album ‘Pleased To Meet You’, however, she and most of her original Sleeperblokes approach their comeback fourth album tentatively, sounding unsure exactly what they should be in 2019, and if anyone will care.
In 2019, as it happens, there’s a greater fondness and respect for Sleeper’s unifying role in Britpop than there was when they were instantly atomised in the nuclear blaze of ‘OK Computer’ and ‘Urban Hymns’ in 1997. It was their gritty-sweet sounds and Fred Perry-noir aesthetic that united such disparate bands as Pulp, Blur and Suede into a recognisable scene, and their biggest tunes – ‘Inbetweener’, ‘Statuesque’, ‘Delicious’, the criminally underrated ‘What Do I Do Now?’ – are now bonafide classics. Predictably, ‘The Modern Age’ (Strokes reference, Sleeper? Bold move) works best when they play to their strengths on familiar ground. ‘Paradise Waiting’, ‘Dig’, ‘Blue Like You’ and ‘Cellophane’ are all crackling recreations of ‘90s guitar pop that will give those of a certain vintage glorious flashbacks to tripping over Donna Elastica at Britpop disco Smashing! on bad speed. Bounce-along Blur basslines, rollocking punk-pop choruses and Wener’s sharp yet fragile melodies abound, all just the right flavour of dirty pigeon.
It’s when Sleeper scout around for a fresh direction that they flounder. ‘Look At You Now’ boasts a characteristically vibrant Sleeper chorus, but its idea of a synth-pop verse is as dated as Dave repeats. Their attempts at chiming with the modern psychedelia of Pond and Tame Impala on ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and the title track suggest a case of mild déjà vu rather than a hallucinogenic storm of fractals. Wener appears to have been dipping into Florence Welsh’s library for lyrics about ancient goddesses and new age sentiments, but doesn’t deliver them with anything like the same conviction. And when they try to go motorik on ‘Car Into The Sea’, they just sound like an anaemic Stereolab.
The sampled strings and lounge tones of ‘More Than I Do’ make a decent stab at sounding like they might have been recorded at the ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’, but the closing ‘Big Black Sun’ is just bizarre, Wener suddenly singing a hazy nu-soul number like a cross between Lana Del Ray and Nina Simone. With its intriguing electronic manipulations and smoky atmosphere, it’s not a bad song in isolation, and all power to singers attempting new styles, but it’s such a stark shift from her endearing natural voice that it smacks of karaoke pretence, like Tom Waits doing a song in the style of Jimmy Somerville.
Sleeper are well aware of the reunion band dilemma – “Still playing all the hits,” Wener wails on ‘Look At You Now’, “but that won’t take you anywhere”. Ultimately, comeback albums are about consolidation rather than reinvention, and there’s just enough of the old ‘Smart’ magic here to satisfy the retro crowds. But there’s little sign of a route to relevance, and that’s not something to sleep on.