Image Change – Elastica’s “The Menace”

Elastica_The_Menace_Cover

Responsible for one of the defining albums of Britpop and, arguably, one of the greatest debut albums by a British band ever, Elastica hold a special place in the hearts of those who were there at the time or who simply understand that few things are as thrilling as a band with an ear for a great pop song and an eye for looking like the coolest gang in the playground.

That self-titled debut album delivered indie disco floor fillers about erectile dysfunction, court cases from post-punk legends and top forty singles that sound as fresh today as they did when they were released.  It is, to be honest, a bona fide classic.

When it arrived it seemed obvious that this was the start of a brilliant, glorious career.  In Justine Frischmann they had a lead singer who looked almost as good as she sounded, a style icon and a key figure in the story of the nineties music scene thanks to her part in the lives of both Suede and Blur.  Annie Holland on bass was just about the coolest person at the Britpop party, like Alex James but not awful.  Justin Welch was the cheekiest, chappiest of cheeky chaps at a time when cheeky chappies were lurking around every corner.  Then there was Donna Matthews.  Donna was the beating heart of Elastica, a ball of energy, a wall of sound and a star so brilliant it seemed inevitable that she would burn out too quickly.

But, as with the debut album from The Stone Roses, “Elastica” wasn’t really the start of anything very much.  It was simply the beginning of the end.  It would be five long years before a follow up arrived and that time had seen Britpop die, the world move on and many of the bands associated with the era become nothing more than punchlines to jokes.  It was going to take something remarkable for Elastica to make any sort of positive impression with their second album under these circumstances.

Something remarkable.

“The Menace” reached number 24 on release and received “favourable” if not “gushing” reviews.  Andrew Collins in Q called it “surprisingly good”.  Damning with faint praise?  Sort of.  The surprise wasn’t that the album was good, the surprise was that anyone should have been surprised.  Frischmann and Matthews had proven that they had the ability to write great pop songs already.  Maybe there was another surprise in the story at this point…that the album had arrived at all.  Heroin had become the drug of choice for lots of people in the Britpop story, including some people very close to Elastica.  It certainly had come to play a part in the life of Matthews.  Few people under the influence of heroin can be said to be “go getters”.  Then there was the fact that Frischmann had broken up with Damon Albarn during their hiatus.  Drugs, broken hearts…and, after aborted attempts to record in 1996, the departure of both Matthews and Annie Holland.    None of this is the sort of soil from which one would expect great art to blossom.

My own response to the album on its release was one of contempt.  I listened to the opening track “Mad Dog God Dam” and decided it was a bloody racket and didn’t bother listening to the rest of it for a very long time.  It was too angular, too spiky, too peculiar.  The constant barage of blokes with guitars and bad haircuts in the years since the end of Britpop had laid waste to my ability to really listen to music.  I had become…a dreadful bore, a one-dimensional consumer, a dullard.  At that point it was impossible for a record like “The Menace” to have had any impact on me.  Fortunately I was able to move on, free myself from the shackles of bucket hats, Ben Sherman and the notion that only music made by men, music made by men who looked like me, music made by men who looked like me and that sounded like all of the records I had been buying five years ago.

Praise be.

Otherwise I would still only be listening to music from twenty-five years ago…trapped in a cultural, musical, ghetto.

White bread.

Plain white bread.

When I listened to “The Menace” properly for the first time I was struck by one moment more than any other.  “My Sex”.  An Eno-esque mess, mass and mash of electronic noises, spoken word and beautiful synths that left me reeling.  A hymn to love.  “To walk through the wardrobe of other bodies we have known” might just be the most beautiful line in a song ever.  Yet it’s not even the most beautiful line in the song.  That honour goes to “Is to love you everywhere…and everyhow”.  It might not even be that those lines are especially beautiful but to hear Frischmann deliver them in a near whisper and with absolute conviction is enough to break your heart.  It stands, or lies, as a tender counterpoint to the more brutal delights of “Love Like Ours” with “A love like ours will never die, break my bonds, break my back” the closest it gets to the delicate delights of “My Sex”.  It is one of the closest tracks on the album to the songs that so delighted the fans five years earlier.

There are more tracks that recall the wonky, post-punk, punk-pop, spills of the debut album too like “Your Arse My Place” and “Generator” which can only be listened to when one is wearing Doctor Martens, black jeans and a leather jacket…floppy fringe is optional.  They sound like “Elastica” and that is a good thing.  But it isn’t good enough.  Not if you want more from the bands you love than simple repetition.  Fortunately Frischmann understood how important it was not to stand still and so the album also includes one of the most creative, distinctive and disruptive voices in British music history…Mark E. Smith.  Smith was involved in the writing and recording of both “How He Wrote Elastica Man” (a playful nod to The Fall’s “How I Wrote Elastic Man”) and “KB”.  Smiths presence ensures that, just as with his own band, the music was urgent, forceful and experimental.

“The Menace” does have a problem but it isn’t the album…it is the presence of “Elastica”.  The success of that album, the love that people have for it, it’s part in the Britpop story all combined to create a curious weight that was, almost inevitably, going to crush anything that followed it.  What would have been interesting would have been for “The Menace” to have arrived first…but this isn’t an episode of “Quantum Leap” so we have to play with the hand we have been dealt by history.

I could do that thing that people do where they claim to love a record that isn’t as popular by a band that people love as another album by that band so that I could get some likes or to provoke a reaction on Twitter…but I’m not that guy.  Not tonight.  “The Menace” is a good record, Hell at times and in places it is a great album, and it deserves more than the slightly sniffy reception it normally receives.  I’ve been listening to it as I have been writing this and what is telling is that I haven’t hit “skip” or had a desire to go to “Elastica”.  That tells you something surely?