Steve Lamacq once said of [a]Pulp[/a]’s ‘Common People’ that its success was partly owed to “everyone desperately wanting them to have a hit”. He could dust off those words again when describing Canada’s long-toiling, merry-go-round band of blusterous alternative rockers, [a]The Dears[/a]. In many ways the group’s circumstances echo large parts of [a]Pulp[/a]’s; perennially lauded by few others beyond hardened devotees, they survive on their frontman’s insatiable desire to succeed.
So, like a prize fighter still chasing his final payday, Murray Lightburn brings back his support team for a fifth album, bloodied of nose, emotional scars on display, but importantly, still unbowed. It helps that among the now-standard array of line-up changes he’s seen fit to welcome guitarists Patrick Krief and Robert Benvie back into the fold.
The pair were both present and correct for what still amounts to the band’s milestone, 2004’s epic ‘No Cities Left’, and this, allied with a switch towards more collaborative songwriting, means that ‘Degeneration Street’ possesses an adventurous spirit – albeit within [a]The Dears[/a]’ now clearly defined parameters. ‘Yesteryear’ juts out with ’60s pop charm, the band’s full-blooded power only blitzkrieging through in its chorus, while opener ‘Omega Dog’ and ‘Stick With Me Kid’ marry undercurrents of nocturnal electronics and coy strings to the more recognisable guitar and vocal traits.
Ultimately, though, its success still falls on Lightburn’s shoulders, a vocalist who’s always straddled the line between impassioned and overwrought. His idiosyncratic faux-British growl is as passionate as ever, and at times he can be a reflective crooner (‘Galactic Tides’), at others a messianic preacher (religious references abound, including him declaring on ‘5 Chords’: “Our father up in heaven/On pins and needles/We’re waiting on a second coming”).
There’s nothing new about his vocal or lyrical approach – barring a disarming falsetto on ‘Tiny Man’ – and it’s this heart-on-sleeve approach that might once again turn people off, despite the record containing some of [a]The Dears[/a]’ most radio-aiming choruses yet.
The shimmering ‘Thrones’ sees Lightburn control his overbearing emotion and channel it just right, while ‘Unsung’ swoops and swoons with a gentle melancholy that’s then turned on its head with a defiant “we can’t throw it away and forsake all we got”. It’s this that makes [a]The Dears[/a] a most acclaimed but commercially frustrated act, desiring to cross over but only under their own terms, which is why fickle daytime-radio fans are so resistant. So they remain ours; whether that’s enough for them is another matter.
Simon Jay Catling
Order a copy of The Dears’ ‘Degeneration Street’ from Amazon