For all the supposed narrative peddled (on these pages and elsewhere) about how Thirteen was seen as a disappointing follow-up to Bandwagonesque, and Grand Prix suffered as a consequence, the chart placings of Teenage Fanclub's albums show a different story.
It turns out that from Bandwagonesque to Songs From Northern Britain, each Teenage Fanclub album peaked higher than the previous one: Bandwagonesque reached #22, Thirteen #14, Grand Prix #7. Songs From Northern Britain cracked the top 5, reaching #3 in the summer of 1997, behind The Prodigy and The Spice Girls, ahead of Texas and Radiohead; as such Teenage Fanclub were mingling in some pretty high-selling company at this point.
Although their singles continued to struggle to make much impact, Songs From Northern Britain also gave the band their first and only top twenty single, with "Ain't That Enough" climbing to #17.
"Ain't That Enough" is one of two Teenage Fanclub tracks that Nick Hornby selected in his book 31 Songs. He writes:
It is important that we are occasionally, perhaps even frequently, depressed by books, challenged by films, shocked by paintings, maybe even disturbed by music. But do they have to do all these things all the time? Can't we let them console, uplift, inspire, move, cheer? Please? Just every now and then, when we've had a really shitty day? I need somewhere to run to, no more than ever, and songs like "Ain't That Enough" is where I run.
As a response to the song, and to the album, it is as eloquent and as on the money as you are likely to find. It also sums up a lot of how I feel about the act of listening to music in general. I like some of the difficult stuff, the awkward sounds, the weird, the droning, the complex, the angry noise, the reactionary statement, the sound of protest. The howling. But when it comes to the crunch, you will find me, more often than not, digging melody, a few simple words, a harmony or two, and perhaps a brief and unshowy solo. All of these can be found throughout Songs From Northern Britain; it's an almost perfectly enjoyable listen.
Here is a sunrise - ain't that enough?
Clear as the blue sky - ain't that enough?
From the opening chords of "Start Again", it is the sound of a band whose members feel completely comfortable and happy together, and perhaps its no coincidence that Blake, Love and McGinley each contribute four tracks to the album. Lyrically it deals with the simple truths that often elude those less at ease with their world, musically it deals in arrangements and styles that come from resolutely, confidently, following your own lead. Teenage Fanclub never seemed all that concerned with what anyone else was doing: here they revel in choosing their own path, taking the road less hyped. During the more acoustic moments they sound like a greatest hits package of all the groups that have ever sat round a microphone together, guitars in hand: The Byrds pop in and out; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young say hi.
It’s an album of closeness and intimacy that often uses distance and space to express itself: "Speed of light stars and planets" ("Speed of Light"); "I feel the planets surround me, they gather round me" ("Planets"); "My souvenir of my time on this sphere" ("It's a Bad World"); "Heaven's revolving sin - seasons change everything" ("Winter"). There’s a big bad world out there, it seems to say, but just as that big bad world is really only a tiny speck in a much bigger universe, together we can make our own world, and make it safe.
I don't care about where I'm going
because I'll be there and so will you
Occasionally, a younger version of Teenage Fanclub crops up. "Start Again" works its way up to a multi-tracked guitar solo, and "Can't Feel My Soul" packs a surprisingly fuzzy punch from McGinley's trademark guitar-work. "Mount Everest" combines the slacker cool of old with fireside harmonies, and more fuzzy guitar, reminiscent of the Neil Young homage of "Gene Clark", pairs up with a simple but effective piano melody.
Songs From Northern Britain is not a difficult album. It is not a heavy album, either. "It's a Bad World" is about the least delicate moment, but it's only as tough as the Big Star sound it replicates. Besides, its weight is partly illusory and comes from following the almost gravity-free "Planets", with its languid sense of time and space, threatening to float off on its beautiful string arrangement. It is, however, a rich and rewarding album for those times when you just need to sit back and appreciate a peaceful moment or two.
When I'm on my own I'm lost in space -
my freedom's a delusion.
Your love is the place where I come from