For as long as they’ve been putting out records, Tindersticks have always elicited a response best summed up by appropriating the advertising slogan of a certain yeast extract. Much of that is down to Stuart Staples’ distinctive baritone vocal style, but their dense, atmospheric output has almost always garnered critical acclaim. Even the most ardent opponent of musically divisive toast condiments would have to admit that the band’s scope, instrumentation, and sonic ambition stand alone.
Their output is not just prolific, but positively enormous in scale, nuance, and self-knowing. The soundtracks they’ve produced for the movies of Claire Denis showcase a breadth of collaborative creativity very few groups or artists could contemplate.
2019’s No Treasure But Hope seemed a bit of a sharp turn for the band. An air of satisfyingly matured acceptance replaced the sombre threat evident in their earlier recordings. Distractions is a real contrast to its predecessor, not just in mood but also, noticeably, in terms of the rhythms and drum sounds. Where No Treasure But Hope used gentle drum brushes, Distractions uses brash drum machines and patterns, taking the overall vibe somewhere distinctly off-planet.
You may already have heard opener and lead single ‘Man Alone (can’t stop the fadin’)’. If you haven’t, give yourself a treat and fuse it straight into your brain. It’s the longest song Tindersticks have ever committed to record, but it doesn’t feel like it. From the pulsing bass backbone to the electro-like structure and very obvious Krautrock influence, it builds into a throbbing, brooding, head-nodding epic.
Regarding the track’s extraordinary 11 minutes-plus running time, Staples said ‘This song was always a journey but I wasn’t expecting it to be such a long one. We made a six minute version but it felt like it pulled off and stopped halfway to its destination.’ I, personally, look forward to hearing someone dropping into a mix alongside something by Steve Stoll or Richie Hawtin.
‘I Imagine You’ is an immediate counterpoint to the banging opener, with Staples whispering over a deceptively layered mix of subtle keys and pads. Perhaps he’s been living in France longer than I realised, but there’s a definite and not un-sexy Gallic twang to his accent these days.
Of all Neil Young’s songs, ‘A Man Needs a Maid’ is probably the one best suited to being covered by Tindersticks. However, the brooding version they’ve recorded here exceeds all expectations. Where Young’s version on Harvest boasted cinematic strings, here there are atmospheric bleeps and slightly unsettling vocal harmonies. In the hands of most bands, this could end up an entirely incidental addition to an album, but this is a real highlight.
Approximately 43 percent (that’s 3 out of 7, maths fans) of Distractions is cover versions. Showing impeccable taste by covering one of the 20th century’s most underrated songwriters, this version of Dory Previn’s ‘Lady with the Braid’ will hopefully turn listeners on to the original and her superlative back catalogue.
Choosing to cover a Television Personalities song is bold enough. Selecting ‘You’ll Have to Scream Louder’ and swapping out the brash, overdriven 80s guitars for clean, creamily compressed guitars over a bossa nova 808 is putting-your-reproductive-bits-in-a-shark’s-mouth bold.
‘Tue-moi’ is, a little disappointingly, not an attempt at the oft-covered Franck Langolff standard, but is a haunting, sparsely arranged song comprising just vocals and piano. My French is barely beyond broken, but the first line of ‘Tue moi mon frère’ got me all excited about some sexy fratricide. However, the later rendering of the line as ‘Tue moi mon amour’ (Kill me my love) hits just as hard. Hopefully, a genuine French speaker can find the poetry and symbolism in the lyrics here, but my brain immediately interpreted it as a tale of murderous incest, and I’m surprisingly OK with that.
‘The Bough Bends’ centres around a fantasy piano and palm-muted guitar, building into large, distorted chords. The juxtaposition between the various elements seems to become the point. The closest thing to a guitar solo on the entire album manages to sound like some sort of electric mandolin. The line ‘You arrived here, naked and screaming’ got me thinking about sexy brothers again, so we’ll just pull a charitable Freudian curtain over the rest of my silly and potentially damnable interpretations.
Is it fair to call this a minimalist album? Yes, probably, but it’s not early-Plastikman minimalist. It’s minimalist in a dense, intense manner. Despite the more electronic production compared to their previous album, and the proportion of cover versions, Distractions manages to portray a naked honesty, whose rarity is to be cherished in these particularly dishonest, clothed, times.