Distractions isn’t the most high-profile release from Tindersticks, but it symbolizes a step in a bold direction for the band as they embark on their fourth decade together.
Distractions marks Nottingham outfit Tindersticks’ 13th studio album, and while the sessions were certainly affected by the conditions of the pandemic, the group’s front-man, Stuart Staples, has indicated that it shouldn’t be regarded as the mere result of some restrictive circumstance. That isn’t only because the album’s core ideas were conceived in February of last year, before the pandemic was officially declared, but because Distractions is part of an elaborate, deliberate strategy to take the band’s back-catalog in new directions. It is, decidedly, a more small-scale release, with an apparent minimalistic approach to musicianship and to the orchestral arrangements. But “small-scale” doesn’t have to mean minor, and as effortless and relaxed as this experimental jamming can sound on the surface, look a little deeper and it’s easy to find rich and detailed, sonically eclectic textures and ambiance all over this record.
“Man Alone (Can’t Stop the Fadin’)” — this set’s epic, madcap, 11-minute opener (also Tindersticks’ longest track to date) — is the fullest realization of Distraction’s ideas; its spiraling structure and claustrophobic atmosphere compliment disjointed, non-narrative verses that turn into surrealistic verbal automation. Staples’s echoing croon, a thumping bass-line, and spare drum-machine further the trippy effect. And as the track’s repetitious chanting (“Can’t Stop the Fading…”) breaks into a more emotionally raw refrain (“But I’m not greedy for the scan no more”), one could almost interpret this opus as Staples’s avant-garde take on an anthemic stomper like the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” In contrast, the album’s second track, “I Imagine You,” leads the listener through an ephemeral, soothing sprawl; its mood is akin to the soundtrack work that Staples and his band have become well known for, largely through continued collaboration with French arthouse filmmaker Claire Denis. The combination of vibraphone and Staples’s alternating spoken-word/singing on the track shape a phantasmagorical ghost-tale which includes probably the most beautiful poetry found anywhere on this record: “I imagine you in the sunshine, maybe / Whatever the weather / Whatever is on TV / I imagine you.”
The midsection of Distractions is formed by three cover songs. Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid” is rendered in a bluesy, trip-hop fashion, with the band’s frequent collaborator, Gina Foster, adding her Gospel-fueled harmonies to Staples’s husky voice in the chorus. Dory Previn’s “Lady With the Braid” allows for Tindersticks to embrace easy Americana- and country-adjacent vibes, as Earl Harvin’s soft percussion and Staples’s dreamy vocal — especially in the transition into the song’s outro — approach the exhilarating finale of the Eagles’s “Hotel California.” Closing out this trifecta, Tindersticks offer a groovy rendition of post-punk group Television Personalities’ “You’ll Have to Scream Louder” — another of this album’s major highlights, with its rhythmic mix of twitchy percussion and palm-muted guitar rendering the politically discontent poetry into an incitement to revolt (“I’ve got no respect for / These people in power / They make their decisions / From their ivory towers”). Inspired by the tragic terrorist attack at the Parisian theater Le Bataclan, Distractions’ penultimate track, “Tue-Moi,” is a piano chanson, an appropriately subtle precursor to the serene finale, “The Bough Bends” (filled with David Boulter’s flute-like mellotron and Neil Fraiser’s buzzy, gritty electric guitars).
After all, Distractions is an immersive record that configures itself mostly according to a melancholic, romantic confessional quality, both imperturbable and numinous. If it’s not a major leap in quality or concept for Staples and his mates, it still reflects legitimately bold, confident steps forward in the thought-out course the group has undertaken since the early ‘90s. Distractions is a deeply focused record, and an essential signpost in predicting what we should expect from Tindersticks in the future.
Publisher as part of Album Roundup — February 2021 | Part 1.