The idea behind Tindersticks’ new album Across Six Leap Years was to recapture songs that had somehow got lost along the way, or that hadn’t been recorded quite the way the band envisaged. Listening to the album, then, it’s interesting that many of the tracks don’t sound altogether different from their original album versions. The result is a satisfying collection of subtly reworked old and not-so-old tracks; better than a cheap best-of, but not as radical as it could have been.
I’ve loved Tindersticks since the day I wandered into a Manchester music store and, spying their self-titled second album on a listening post, dropped the headphones on and let the opening bars of "El diablo en el ojo" feed into me. It wasn’t love at first listen: I’d known tracks like "Marbles" and "Snowy in F# minor" before this day, but it was a transformative moment. Then, seeing them live for the first time was a spellbinding experience that only live music can provide.
After nearly two decades of love and adulation - I’ve seen them play home and abroad, in halls, theatres and institutes, stripped back and bare or with full orchestral accompaniment; I’ve bought albums, singles, soundtracks, live collections and official bootlegs; I’ve been here, there and bought the t-shirt - that before 2012’s The Something Rain it had been quite a while since I’d really listened to Tindersticks. The Hungry Saw (2008), and Falling Down a Mountain (2010) saw the band struggling to wrench itself from the past and formulate a new self. Both, as a result, lacked memorable moments. In the years since Waiting for the Moon (2003), lead singer Stuart Staples had also been off recording two solo albums; for many, the end was nigh.
With an end, a beginning; on The Something Rain, Tindersticks found their new groove, more comfortably soulful than they’d sounded in years, at the same time forceful, while still finding space for old methods that had served well: "Chocolate", the album’s opening track, is delivered spoken-word, harking back to the story-telling of a song like "My Sister", while "Show Me Something" is driven by a strong, angry guitar riff.
Across Six Leap Years is the sound of the new Tindersticks transposed over the score of the old Tindersticks. There’s nothing here (assuming you aren’t hearing the songs for the first time) to make you stop and wonder, but while no individual song leaps out as remarkable, the effect of the whole is seamless: the old ("Sleepy Song", "A Night In", "She’s Gone" - all from the second album) mingles with the new ("Friday Night" and "Marseilles Sunshine" from Staples’s first solo album, and "What Are You Fighting For", rescued from non-album track obscurity and given new beauty and clarity), mindless of the age gap.
A common approach to this sort of release might take a number of directions: the luscious string reworking, or perhaps the stripped bare, raw and emotional reworking. For a band that made a living combining luscious strings with dirty emotional wreckage, these were never going to be options. Instead Across Six Leap Years showcases emotional maturity in Stuart Staples’ vocals, powerful backing vocals where powerful backing vocals are needed, and harsh guitars where soft strings once played. Where once the violins cushioned Staples harsh baritone, his newer, softer, delivery, acts a damper to punctuating brass and harsh guitar tones. They avoid the temptation to blow songs up out of all proportion, but then an understanding of quiet, of the spaces in between, has long been a Tindersticks hallmark.
If there’s one thing missing from Across Six Leap Years it’s the version of Tindersticks that as provided mostly instrumental scores for a suite of Claire Denis films, from Nénette et Boni in 1996 to this year’s Les Salauds. The last of these includes eerie, isolating electronica, which could have been the basis of some remarkable and interesting reworkings if the band had chosen to take that route. If, as Staples says, the album is about "the power of now", then maybe that would have been as "now" as they could go. Instead, we’re given a beautiful collection that advances where these ten songs are in the mind of their creators, but which seems to play a little safe: a readjustment more than a re-imagining.