Critically underappreciated on its release, Thirteen was not the triumphant breakthrough that the response to Bandwagonesque had suggested would be on its way from Teenage Fanclub. Its biggest crime – its only crime really – was to be that album with a hair-cut and a shave.
I’d love to hear your sound
On the radio
Produced by the band themselves, Thirteen takes the sound of Bandwagonesque (itself already cleaned up from A Catholic Education) and tries to sculpt it into a more radio-friendly form. Although the songs are almost the equal of those on Bandwagonesque, the excitement suffers as a result. Whereas the rumbling guitars underneath the melody of earlier songs pinned everything together and even managed to enhance the sweetness of the melody, on Thirteen the balance is just nudged out, leaving a less rounded sound.
On “Norman 3”, while the one-quarter song, three-quarters outro formula just about works, the bass is all over the verse leaving the guitar to footle around ineffectively in the tiny amount of space it’s given in the mix. Raymond McGinley’s guitar then gets over-layed with a soft rock filter that leaves the mix feeling all sweetness and no savoury. It still tastes pretty good, it just doesn’t thrill.
You won’t leave your mark on me
I’m protected by an honesty
Where it works better is on the songs that look more to the future sound of Teenage Fanclub: “Song to the Cynic” and “120 Mins”, nestled together in the middle of the running order, provide a tender pair, with a downbeat note but uplifting harmonies. Here and there, little moments of surprise and wonder light up songs, like a chord change out of the first verse of “Radio”, and a segment out of the first verse of “Escher” that takes that idea and extends it brilliantly. Then there’s the whistle into the outro of “Fear of Flying” and the “hey hey hey!” refrain that repeats to the end.
Song-writing duties and credits are spread throughout the band on Thirteen: even drummer Brendan O’Hare gets in on the act with the short but enjoyable instrumental “Get Funky”. Norman Blake sprinkles some of his pop stardust on “Commercial Alternative” and “Ret Living Dead”, but it’s Gerard Love’s compositions that make the biggest impression, particularly the three longest tracks on Thirteen: “Hang On”, “Fear of Flying”, and “Gene Clark”.
I’m going underground to reassess just what I’ve found
“Hang On” opens Thirteen in style, with a dose of heavy guitar that soon gives way to a spot of sunny power pop, which itself steps aside for an outro led, unexpectedly, by the sound of a flute and a string section. It’s like a baroque version of “The Concept”. “Fear of Flying” does what “Norman 3” couldn’t and pushes the rhythm guitar forward just enough to count, and then skilfully segues from slacker anthem to a non-stop organ party. And then there’s “Gene Clark”, which shows its love for Neil Young by lifting the whole of the solo from “Cortez the Killer” and dropping it into this album-closer. It’s a rare moment on Thirteen that gives the same involuntary thrill as the best moments on Bandwagonesque, and just like it didn’t matter if those wouldn’t have happened without Big Star, it’s foolish to think less of “Gene Clark” for the same reasons. Just listen to the guitar sing, and weep.
Still not quite as good as it could have been (I can’t really say “should have been” because it’s not like I’ve ever followed up Bandwagonesque with anything, or even created Bandwagonesque in the first place), Thirteen certainly deserved a better reception than it was given on its release, and is well worth dipping into if you don’t already know it.