When it comes to records held dear there’s always the risk of cheap nostalgia interfering with the bond. Because musical appreciation is an evolving construct. A subtle process, for sure – nudged by circumstance, experience, and whatever was on the stereo that time your would-be lover first took you in their arms – but a tangible something nonetheless. Certain albums work whenever and where-ever, their impact transcending all that squiffy detail behind our petty lives (The Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me for example hits as hard – and on the same trajectory – regardless of status; the geeky teen hiding in his bedroom, the misanthropic music blogger floating listlessly towards middle age – it matters not). Other LPs, they’re far more tied to context. Interpretations irrevocably linked to who we were then, not who we are now. Do I understand Whirlpool because it’s a great listen, or is attraction simply dependent upon a carrier bag of dodgy memories?
I would have been seventeen when I first encountered the Chapterhouse début. Which I mention because it’s one of those pivotal ages; awkward for sure, but also fertile territory when a trip to the record store becomes so identified with the emotional detritus of emergent adulthood. A sonic diet influenced by the likes of Ride and My Bloody Valentine, The Mission and The Wonder Stuff – and because I only listen to half of that quartet now that I’m all grown up, there’s the implication that we can trust this young Turk’s opinion only so far.
After all, it’s not as if the late ’80’s / early ’90’s shoegaze aesthetic is immune to criticism. Think unsympathetic production, generic production, scenester infiltration, dated timbres (the eponymous LP by Birdland, released in the same year as Whirlpool, manages to fall foul of the complete set of these hazards – obviously I purchased that record, as well).
There’s also an additional banana skin here, far from exclusive to music made by girls and boys with floppy fringes, in that certain acts, rightly or wrongly (usually wrongly) allow themselves by default to become defined by one track above all else (see: ‘There She Goes’ by The La’s; Beth Orton’s ‘She Cries Your Name’; and the winner in such a category – ‘Groove Is In The Heart’ by Dee-lite). If Chapterhouse register at all in the greater consciousness, it’s for Whirlpool’s lead single ‘Pearl’ – all swirls and surges, a bitter-sweet affirmation daubed ungratuitously across a John Bonham drum loop (and that famous Schoolly D sample – you’ll know the one – comprising the bridge). The vocal sits low in the mix, fey yet not overbearingly so; Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell executes the cooed backing vox in just the right shade of enigmatic; all told, it’s one of those rare songs that you can laud or dismiss using the exact same terminology – that of the shoegaze stock adjective, all reverb and ethereal posture.
(Also – and maybe this is just me – but I’ve always detected a great deal of Loveless about ‘Pearl’ – specifically ‘Soon’ and ‘I Only Said’. It hardly needs to be said that My Bloody Valentine fostered a far greater ambition, and were far more besotted by texture than Chapterhouse at this point, whilst the strength of Whirlpool in general and ‘Pearl’ in particular is defined by a relative accessibility. But having listened to both albums during the writing of this piece, the parallels – or at least the ripples and reflections – are only enhanced).
Whirlpool isn’t Loveless, then… but where-as MBV have the stronger material and a sharper application of scope and scale, the production values available at the time simply didn’t stand a chance when corralling the Kevin Shields vision into album format. This in turn makes Whirlpool by far the more coherent of the two LPs – attention-grabbing single not withstanding. The other significant difference is that, in Andrew Sherriff and Stephen Patman, Chapterhouse featured two songwriters with subtly different (yet complimentary) approaches to composition. It’s not always easy to discern who wrote which particular track – there’s enough cross-pollination in arrangement to mask much of the contrast – but it’s there if you listen for it, all the same (clue: Patman’s tracks, such as ‘Treasure’ and ‘April’ slightly edge the introspection, Sherriff’s numbers being a little more beholden to the hook, as evidenced by album closer ‘Something More’).
I should at this stage admit that, in a previous article on this blog from a couple of years ago, I’m guilty of identifying Whirlpool as my favourite album of 1991 (beating records such as Loveless and… erm… Birdland in the process). Which isn’t to say I’m taking that opinion on blind faith or the say-so of a seventeen year-old idiot who should have left his bedroom more often; this is by no means a flawless LP, and I’m far from convinced that it has dated as well as I’d imagined or hoped for. The splashes of mood are without doubt pretty, but they’re delivered with a passive inflexion, the expression sitting at the expense of lyrical depth. Neither, if we’re honest, is this a disc for all occasions; so much of the detail unfurls only upon the intimate listen, as if unequivocal notions have been deliberately shunned.
In fact, maybe I was wrong all along, and…
(The music blogger pauses at this point, suddenly hesitant as to how or why a particular record encouraged such verdant praise. Maybe he was drunk, and his fingers slipped whilst attempting to type routes of adoration through Bandwagonesque or some such; we may never know. As an air of despondency creeps forward he heads over to the turntable, grabbing a random album from the stack closest to hand; something from ’91, perhaps. Vinyl unsheathed, needle dropped. Which is the exact moment all began to make sense… again).
Because in spite of any shortcoming, the embrace Whirlpool ushers forth remains perpetual. And vibrant (which is important – the Anti-Nostalgia League would concur). Opening track ‘Breather’, full of slanted momentum and crisp guitar. The fuzzy contours of ‘Autosleeper’, through which the nuance behind instrumentation bleeds. The harmonies build and flux, the effects pedals perform their duties in graceful patterns (such as the restrained ‘Guilt’ – a track that could easily have become messy with extra possibilities added to the mix) – even gentle traces of a Spaceman 3 devotion are present, should you know where to look (track #8 – ‘If You Want Me’). Yes, it’s shoegaze, with all of the incumbent issues such a description implies (not forgetting that the band in question had but one further album in them before fading away into the white noise of disbandment). A proposition that works in spite of its leanings, then. To be played loud when alone, feeling wistful, and there’s so much remaining left to give.
Chapterhouse / If You Want Me
A reappraisal requested by @HarrydBastard of the Twitters. The author will usually oblige with words, should you fancy some ill-informed gibberish concerning a favourite record of your own – @lazerguidedblog, or leave a message after the bleep.