By Jonathan Gibson
University of Arizona
I wasn’t alive in 2000. I have no way of knowing what the indie scene was like, what passed as important music in those days. Thus, that year exists in a sort of void that separates indie music I remember from my childhood (Phoenix, Franz Ferdinand, and the like) and ancient history (Pavement, R.E.M., Britpop).
Out of that year came Suburban Light, the debut album by English indie poppers the Clientele, released 20 years ago today (November 28th). A compilation of singles and B-sides released on small British indie labels, it takes influence from a number of bands and scenes I only enjoy somewhat, largely 60’s psych-pop filtered through the mystery and atmosphere of 80’s indie like Felt and Galaxie 500. From this stew of sounds comes something that is, to me, absolutely intoxicating.
Despite being a compilation, Suburban Light is a strong, cohesive album with a particular sound and style. It’s impossible to talk about the record without discussing the production, which makes the record a warm, lo-fi, reverb-saturated glory. Although recorded cheaply, Suburban Light sounds fantastic, and the coating of reverb gives it a truly timeless, ethereal feel despite the minimalist approach, befitting of the mysterious black-and-white photo found on the cover. The sound of the record is dominated by just three instruments—frontman Alasdair Maclean’s guitar, James Hornsey’s bass, and Mark Keen’s drums, with the occasional keyboard thrown in, and a 12-string guitar on just one track, “Rain”.
With so few bells and whistles, the record relies heavily on the strength of Maclean’s songwriting and instrumental melodies. His guitars chime perfectly, and are somehow catchy even on the moodiest, vaguest tracks. This record has some genuine hooks, too, though they often arrive at odd angles. The rhythm section shouldn’t be discounted as well—just listen to the fantastic arpeggiated bassline on “We Could Walk Together”, or the drum fills on “Joseph Cornell”, which prove how necessary they are to the band.
Lyrically, Alasdair Maclean generally writes observationally, with an eye for the mundane and a sense of glorious wistfulness. Littered with vivid imagery, Maclean’s songs on Suburban Light feel like a world of their own, where remembered little details like barking dogs or the afternoon light take on a particular importance. But despite Maclean’s poetic inclinations, his lyrics never feel overwrought, tacky, or twee, as so often happens with his indie pop companions. In some ways, listening to Suburban Light feels like listening to the soundtrack to your own movie, where you’re the main character looking out at the world around you, a feeling that can be addicting. But it feels like Maclean is in on the fantasy—that he’s aware this feeling is so solitary and impermanent, that it’s all just romanticization—feels like part of the appeal.
Given that I have little understanding of the indie scene that Suburban Light was released in, I can only really talk about my experience with it. I first encountered Suburban Light by finding “Reflections After Jane” on some indie pop best of playlist late in 2019, and I can’t say it made an immediate impression, but I liked it enough to add it to my library. That all changed once I found “We Could Walk Together”, easily one of my favorite songs at this point. I basically have had it on repeat ever since. I first listened to the whole record on a rare rainy Arizona afternoon in my dorm, before the outbreak of COVID-19 and ensuing chaos. That “We Could Walk Together” soundtracked one of my last memorable pre-pandemic experiences, sitting in San Diego’s Balboa Park, watching the crowds sift through arcades as night fell cemented the track’s magic in my mind.
Then, of course, it all changed. Still enamored with the record, it stopped soundtracking lonely journeys around Tucson, watching crowds, and memories of times with friends, and began to soundtrack my reminiscence for those moments, and befitting of Alasdair Maclean’s desire to “live inside a window”, I suddenly did. Spending countless nights at home wishing for the return of meaningless moments of observation around town, lines like “On the bridge, the workers pass in threes and fours and fives” became unattainable snapshots of daily life and ephemera before the plague.
I’ve tried to get many of my peers to listen to this record, to the point where I’ve likely become annoying, and while I’ve had success converting a few friends to “We Could Walk Together”, no one I know has become quite as attached to Suburban Light as I have. Even my father, who obviously was around in 2000, and worked in the music industry and by and large loves indie pop, had little to say about the Clientele. While I used to lament that no one I knew connected with the record like I did, it feels fitting for a record steeped in lonely observations of life. In some ways, it feels much more of my own than some of my dad’s indie pop favorites like the Go-Betweens and Belle and Sebastian, both of which share common ancestors, chiming guitars, and observational lyrics with the Clientele. Maybe it was meant to be this way.
The Clientele continued to make great music after Suburban Light, but none of their later songs quite connected with me like “We Could Walk Together” or “Reflections After Jane”.
Perhaps that’s just a function of finding those songs first, or something else. Either way, Suburban Light remains to me a timeless piece of music that feels like every moment I’ve spent alone, looking out at the world.