On Tindersticks’ third album Curtains the band stick largely to the familiar: lush orchestration, sweeping strings, tales of love, lust, and desperate dependency. And just as they refined and cleaned their sonic make-up for the second album, they do it again here; fractured instrumentals and orchestral freak-outs are largely absent from Curtains. It’s not exactly more commercial than its predecessors, but it did bring the band their first and only top forty single Bathtime, which reached #38), and its definitely more easy-going, more deftly charming, even if it really only wants to use that charm to have its wicked way with a series of unnamed antagonists.
Not that charm is what you’d associate with a track like Rented Rooms:
We had to get through
We tried the cinema
Within half an hour
We had to go find someplace else
Some more... you know
We tried a drinking bar
It gets so very hard
And when the cab ride gets too long
We go fuck in the bathroom
It’s an illustration of the album’s preoccupations: privacy, a quiet word, lust. People shut away somewhere, anywhere. Rented rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms, anywhere private will do - even in a plane hovering over the Atlantic a cheap curtain can give you the feeling of blocking out the world. There’s introspection: on Ballad of Tindersticks Staples muses over the surreal life of the touring artist, the sycophancy (“Showbiz people, always there to be interested in what you have to say”), and what it’s all for anyway?
When do you lose the ability to step back and get a sense of your own ridiculousness? They’re only songs
But there’s dancing as well as fucking and introspection, and not the deathly waltzes of the second album: ‘Let’s Pretend’ takes over a minute to get through its repeating intro, as the song’s characters circle each other warily, toreador and bull; (Tonight) Are You Trying to Fall in Love Again is a stand-off tango. There’s no dancing on Dancing, though, except in painfully recalled memories. There’s another beautiful duet, this time with actor, singer, artist, and performance artist Ann Magnuson, which is bracketed by a couple of light ballads (Desperate Man and Bearsuit). There’s beauty in the album’s opening track Another Night In, and quiet in its closing track Talking, which threatens to collide the two worlds Tindersticks are operating in at this time - one the one hand a chamber pop group like no other, on the other soundtrack writers of some talent for hire, providing delicate musical moments for a series of Claire Denis films.
Perhaps the tension of those two worlds and their opposing directions, the sense of bemusement as revealed in Ballad of Tindersticks, and the desire to avoid falling into parody are the reasons why Curtains marked the end of this first Tindersticks period, and why their next album would see them experimenting with new tones.