Tindersticks’ debut album is a smoky piano bar; a doomed love; a long dark soul. Arriving in the Autumn of 1993, just before Britpop stormed the barricades of a nation’s musical conscience, it stands in stark contrast to that sleek, chart-friendly, people-friendly product; rich and dense, it is an orchestral double-album of rare beauty, ranging from violent attack to meek submission, coated by the the unmistakable vocals of Stuart Staples, and arrangements by Dickon Hinchcliffe - now an established arranger and composer, then a raw and untrained musician.
"Nectar" provides an easy way into the album’s murky worlds: arpeggios, gently strummed guitar, bursts of strings, and Staples murmuring away throughout. "Tyed" then switches moods, and swings a single spotlight around the room, all talk of sheets covered in blood and angry, frustrated piano stabs. There’s whiskey, water, more blood ("Where does the blood go? It runs away from broken lives"); the combination is as brutal as you’d expect.
After this dark opening, Tindersticks offer up what passes for light relief ‘round this way: the singles. These are the songs that alone sell the album: ‘City Sickness’, "Patchwork", "Marbles", "Milky Teeth". The last of these was the first single (the first ever Tindersticks release), self-released almost a year before the album came out, and backed with "Patchwork". Its two sides are the two faces of the album in miniature: one insistent and coming right for you; the other hesitant, dropping back, submissive. "City Sickness" is the most immediately approachable track on the album, "Marbles" the most beguiling, with its pulsating organ (hmm) and a simple guitar motif underscored by Staples’ spoken-word tale of love and loss.
You knew you were lost as soon as you saw her
you saw your life as a series of complicated dance steps
impossible to learn, they had to come naturally.
As Milky Teeth passes into A Sweet Sweet Man part 2, you should know it all by now: the world may be a dirty hell-hole, but if we mix beauty with debauchery we have the best of it. Or we can just mix debauchery with violence and bitter threats, as on the relentless "Jism".
If there’s ever anyone else
and I’ll kill him
And at this point the album could end and it would still be a satisfying whole.
Tindersticks aren’t done: "Piano Song" retreads some of Patchwork’s musical ground, but replaces its lyrical romanticism with direct instruction: ‘Shut up - I’m thinking’. And then "Tye-Die", the darkest bloom of all and a callback to "Tyed" - swooping violins, abrasive violins, piano and organ, everything bashing up against everything else, the sound of passive/aggressive overspill, the kind that makes you hurl innocent objects. The kind that’s always followed by a confused slump, or, in this case, the confessional "Raindrops".
I know I’ve been pushing you away
I know It’s been going on for days
Those awkward little things so endearing
Those awkward little things wear on me
Still the sweet sweet pain continues - "Her" is bad-trip Calexico, "Drunk Tank" a discordant assault, ‘Paco de Renaldo’s Dream a confused monologue.
Listening to the album in its entirety for the first time in a long time, I don’t know what’s more shocking: the lyrical brutality, the forceful beauty, or the fact that so few people will have even heard, or would give the time of day to such an impressive work.