Supergrass have spent 11 years leaving me fairly cold. ‘Caught By The Fuzz’ was a brilliant pop record, and I remember liking ‘Mary’ a lot, but, fucking hell, all that other gumph just sailed right past me. Supergrass always seemed like they were a bit resentful of their position, resentful of being in a successful group, resentful of who they were. They seemed like the cartoon image they’d been saddled with – as much of their own making as anyone else’s… I mean, no-one made him grow those sideburns – was eating away at the people they actually were. Supergrass were tainted with the wacky-stick; the perfect mid-point between The Monkees and the Pixies, they were equally uncomfortable in both camps. They also had that killer tag of being loads of people’s second-favourite group. A few steps up from perennial lower-league makeweights like The Charlatans or Placebo, sure, but still some serious way short of Radiohead, say, or Nirvana. Ultimately, they were ignorable, which is the worst thing that can be said of any group. They’ve got a new album out? Great, but why should I care if it’s only going to be some grump-fest like ‘In It For The Money’? When you consider the deal, bands actually expect a hell of a lot of us. Forty-plus minutes of verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge twattery at 12 quid a pop? What’s in it for us again? Oh yes, the music!
But, 11 years in and, against all the odds, here’s a Supergrass album everyone can love. ‘Road To Rouen’ is the sound of a band at last hitting their stride, finding out who they are and sounding like it’s finally making them happy. Supergrass sound ready to make music that actually touches you – rather than just pleasures you.
A few things to note straight off. If you were one of those people who scratched their heads and wondered why a bunch of old buggers like Paul McCartney and Pink Floyd excited so much attention simply for appearing at Live8 then a fair proportion of ‘Road To Rouen’ may leave you cold, because the chilled breeze of early ’70s Floyd albums, the rounded melodic suss of late-period Beatles, the wounded soul of Elliott Smith and the reborn blues of John Lennon circa 1971 are all over this record. Of course, for millions of people, that’s the worst news ever. Well, y’know, tough shit.
Album opener ‘Tales Of Endurance (Parts 4, 5 & 6)’ mimics PF’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ in its floating guitar lines, battling themes of anger (“We welcome commercial suicide/Kiss the love you leave behind”), loss (Gaz’s mother died two years ago and that, inevitably, has had an effect on their songwriting) and rock-solid, head-nodding grooves – Floyd were, despite their appearance, funky as fuck – but there’s a strident Bob Dylan, an opiated Beatles and, most surprisingly, the dilated-pupil rush of E’d-up dance floor dynamics in there too.
‘St Petersburg’ must have been the band’s strangest choice for a single ever. A broken-hearted lament strung out across a piano part so lonesome every other instrument appears to be here just for support, it features a melody seemingly divined directly from the soundtrack to some John Barry spy film from 1965 and ends with the most gorgeous string quartet winding in on itself. Did anyone really think something this beautiful and plaintive would be a hit? Have they been sectioned yet?
It’s rumoured Kate Bush will return with a new album this year. If she does, she may want to ask Supergrass for ‘Sad Girl’ back first, as it used to be hers and is known more widely as ‘Babooshka’. Someone, sadly, who won’t be coming back is Elliott Smith, and, again, it’s his ghost that hangs above this, his spirit a smokey wreath around their heads.
‘Roxy’ – imagine Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘1979’ bled clean of all the useless wankery – has Gaz revealing that he’s been, “Living in fear of what hasn’t come yet” over more Floyd flavour (this time, it’s the arcing vocal lines of ‘Eclipse’ from ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’). The string quartet reappears, drifting like sunlight through the trees after a long, dark, over-stimulated night. Have Supergrass sounded this free before? OK, so the Lithuanian polka-pop of ‘Coffee In The Pot’ may not be their finest moment, but it does highlight a band who are still capable of making each other laugh, and, when you’ve spent 11 years thrashing through records and tours together, that means a lot. Can you imagine The Strokes, even now, managing to make each other crack a smile with a stupid guitar line? No, me neither. In an earlier time, that would have been the end of side one. Now it sounds a little odd sandwiched between ‘Roxy’ and ‘Road To Rouen’’s scratchy Talking Heads boogie meets Sly & The Family Stone dope-groove. Full marks for the dub FX and sampled police sirens that cut in and out of the band’s angular funk strut too.
There’s a part of The Byrds’ ultra-jangle that will be forever the guitar band’s friend and nothing else on this album soars with fresh psychedelic intent like ‘Kick In The Teeth’. It even manages to play out on a reverberating Beatles bassline.
‘Low C’ (“The loneliness at times/I can feel it open wide”) could be a broad-brimmed Lennon opening the shutters and letting some sunlight into his stockbroker-belt mansion’s piano room. When the band break the song down it is, as usual for this record, Rob Coombes’ keyboards that lift everything and carry it all off somewhere wonderful and unusual.
Finally, there’s ‘Fin’, which, as carrot-cake eaters everywhere knows means ‘End’, but this, like so much of the rest of ‘Road To Rouen’, sounds more like a new beginning. “Love, love, and loss, so dear/You know it’s a long way home”, Gaz sighs. We’re glad you could make it. But Christ almighty, what took you so long?