Looking back, it’s clear The Long Blondes were never all about the music. The image, the affectations, the snappy dressing, the kitschy pop-cultural loves, the Bonnie And Clyde-referencing cover art, sure, but not the music. ‘Someone To Drive You Home’ came out just that little bit too late to cash in on the excitement of those early singles. It was a functional record that failed to really wow. Sure, it had the catchy choruses and the wry, well-phrased lyrics but it wasn’t outlandish nor as heart-grabbingly essential as we had hoped for.
However, like Mystery Jets, they’d attracted the attentions of Erol Alkan and had been working on a handful of mysterious, exciting B-sides. ‘Who Are You To Her?’ and ‘Five Ways To End It’ suggested they were heading in a thrilling, dancefloor-loving new direction. The Long Blondes went slinky disco. It felt like they’d found the music to match everything they were about. So ‘“Couples”’ (don’t forget the quotation marks, we’ll get to those in a minute), long before it was even recorded, promised a lot.
Fast-forward to the album’s arrival and something is awry in Blondes land. This should be an incredible piece of work. Erol is still on production duties. The band claim a love for the Pet Shop Boys and the inimitable Glass Candy. They’re promising to look to the future instead of the past. It’s even – deep breath – a concept album. Not a horrible one about space monsters and the apocalypse, as they all seem to be, but one about famous 20th century couples: The Two Ronnies, Basil and Sybil Fawlty, Richard and Judy, Gazza and Jimmy Fivebellies, Chris Evans and Billie Piper, Gilbert and George… this should make for a smart, informed, modern record that’s lofty enough to sit high on its deserved pop pedestal.
‘“Couples”’, however, doesn’t feel right. It’s not a terrible record but it is a disappointing one. Whereas once they sang of suburban boredom tempered with the thrill of escape, now they’ve started to sound like they’d be happy to stay put. ‘Erin O’Connor’, one of the catchiest tunes here, is sullied by its baffling model-based lyrics: “Close your eyes and think of Erin O’Connor/I’ll pretend I’m Lily Cole”. ‘Here Comes The Serious Bit’ is a sloppy shout-fest that’s grating rather than defiant. ‘Round The Hairpin’, a dark stab at krautrock, highlights the band’s musical inadequacies with a plodding dirge that flaps around before ending up right back where it started. ‘I Liked The Boys’, which rhymes “boys” with “boy” and sounds as half-finished as its couplets (they have a habit of this – see ‘Weekend Without Makeup’’s “two very different things”). With a bit more work, a bit more polish, a bit more something, they could have pulled off these adventurous musical diversions. As it stands, ‘“Couples”’ is messy and inconsistent. That said, in places, the magic does happen. ‘Century’ is a cracking first single, a future-disco whirl that reins in Kate’s bombastic vocals to stunning effect, before descending into tongue-in-cheek, stabbing Gary Numan synths. ‘Too Clever By Half’ and ‘Nostalgia’, the most forward-looking songs on the album, are bravely understated. You suspect a year ago they would have got the full Kate Jackson lung assault, but after Jarvis Cocker compared her vocals not so favourably to Barbra Streisand, she’s far more restrained. It means that ‘Nostalgia’ in particular, is a fittingly elegiac and lovely song that is effortlessly grown-up.
That effortlessness is sadly absent for too much of the album – and that’s the main problem. The Long Blondes should be a band to adore, but ‘“Couples”’ resists that at every turn. The knowing, heavy-handed detachment of those quotation marks reinforces this inexplicable coldness that threatens to demolish the album’s ambition. In one of the promotional YouTube clips there’s an explanation of the record’s theme: “‘“Couples”’ is an homage to the mundanities of love,” apparently. Despite the occasional flashes of brightness, it sounds like they’ve taken that brief to heart.