Music and Memory: The Return of The Clientele

Where does music end and memory begin? Some of my earliest recollections exist solely because of the music that accompanied my experience. I have vivid memories of a summer morning in my youth spent with my sister around a Fisher-Price turntable, listening to Bryan Hyland’s “Sealed With a Kiss” on repeat. Neil Diamond cassettes were staples of our family road trips, as were children’s albums like Cabbage Patch Dreams or Psalty’s Christmas Calamity. Many Willie Nelson songs still evoke trips across the Trans-Canada Highway in the winter with my dad in his old Ford pickup. One band in particular, The Clientele, can remove me from my current consciousness and turn me toward the past with ease.

Listening to their single “I Had to Say This,” from their earliest collection Suburban Light, will forever summon a spring morning in 2001 when I asked my then-girlfriend to marry me.  We hosted a radio show together, and I had schemed for months how to ask her to walk down the aisle. The station had recently begun streaming online, so it seemed novel at the time that I could let friends and family know so they could listen in beyond the reach of our signal.

As I was gathering my courage to ask, I put on The Clientele’s song. Two reasons compelled me; first, the title and its gentle insistence. Second, the feel I get from the song, both urgent and languid, low fidelity and lush, shimmering and blurred. Today, hearing the song will transport me to that time, to that feeling of transition, knowing that I would soon be leaving university for a job and a life shared with the person I loved the most. I remember watching her through the studio glass, content in the conviction that could only be possessed by a 23 year-old about to cross a major threshold.

The song still conjures the fearlessness of that day, the certainty that the future would be filled with wine and roses, that it would all unfold exactly as it should.  The recklessness of longing, of getting what you want, and feeling as though it was predestined.  All these things were in my mind as the song faded out, and I mixed it with the instrumental version of the Beach Boys “God Only Knows,” which of course was our song. And seeing the look in her eyes, when she realized exactly what I was up to.  We both started to speak on the air at the same time, so I deferred and let her go first.  “I wanted to ask you if those were backwards guitar solos,” she said smiling, referring to a conversation we’d had the prior evening in the context of some T. Rex songs. That moment was weightless, trapped in amber and filled with the morning light of a beautiful spring day, on the cusp of a summer that remains as magic to me as any I’ve experienced since. All I need to do to bring it back is drop the needle on a record.

Fast forward to this past spring, my morning routine would involve waking up to see my phone on the bedside table, and the immediate anxiety of needing to know what awful things had happened on the East Coast of the United States of America. The masochistic opening of Twitter became such a bloodless, painful exercise that I was numb to the news of the day. During that time, I forgot that social media could have ever been a positive force, that it could offer a happy surprise or news that could turn a day from bad to good.

As is so often the case, I had to piece together the news as it was unfolding, and work backwards a bit to determine if what I had hoped had really come true. The Clientele was reforming! They had a new record and were touring again! Of all the bands I have loved in my life, they hold perhaps the closest place to my heart. From 2001 to 2010 when they disbanded, The Clientele reliably put out records and played shows in Seattle (where we lived) at least every other year.

Those years when my wife and I were establishing our lives together, The Clientele were a regular part of the noise we surrounded ourselves with. We listened to the records, went to the shows with friends, and goddamn, they made me happier than any band ought to have the right to make one person. My wife said something to me offhandedly at a show of theirs, “I love watching you watch this band play,” meaning that I could never contain my happiness when I witnessed them create their lovely music.

Their new album released this fall, Music for the Age of Miracles, is their first since 2010’s mini-album the Minotaur. In an excellent interview, singer Alasdair MacLean mentions that the new record is saturated with the story of Orpheus, the Greek poet and musician whose divine songs moved (almost) all that heard them.

In the context of The Clientele’s return, the story of Orpheus’ trip into the underworld may be read as cautionary, that there is a danger in loving or making music leaning so heavily on nostalgia and memory. Our perception may simply become a hall of mirrors, gazing forever inward, and showing us only what we think we want to see, ourselves. That in looking back, we may lose the thing we love the most. Instead, I feel like this record is a wonderful continuation of a catalog that is (in my mind) unimpeachable, and a welcome return from a band that I believed to have said all it was going to say. It’s easy for me to imagine some far-off day, listening to this music again, and remembering these moments with fondness, of a time when my little girls were so young and delightful and my family was making a new life in a strange town.

DJ Mr. Mom will host a retrospective of his favorite Clientele tunes on his show “Nobody Wants a Lonely Heart,” on Freeform Portland on Wednesday, November 8, 2017 from 10 pm to midnight. You can catch the Clientele in Portland on Friday, November 10th.