Fred Thomas’s last LP Changer spoke to me in a way that few others do; the sense of weariness, fascination and internalised rebellion in the face of a world moving away from him struck a resounding chord with me and, as such, I’ve been awaiting the coming of his new L.P, Aftering, with something approaching heart attack levels of anticipation. Changer saw the Saturday Looks Good To Me founder dealing with the tough business of keeping himself together amidst the tedium and unhappiness of bad jobs and broken relationships. Aftering is, if anything, even more bleak, not so much on a personal level as in a wider sense; the album features the usual references to alienation on a small scale, but also frequently alludes to the journey of our era towards its own especially terrifying out-door, a timely and even more unsettling idea.
From the blank, synthetic throb of opener “Ridiculous Landscapes”, there’s a grim streak that runs throughout most, if not all, of the record. The first verse of the song references “fall out shelter basements always bracing for the blast”, and there’s a sense of doom and decay that pervades the lyrics much of the time, from the people “dressed up like the world’s about to end” on the bleary, infectious “Alcohol Poisoning”, to the reccurence time and again of intense cold and winter settings, on “House Show” and “What The Sermon Said” to name but two. But this discomfort doesn’t necessarily drag the music down: the run of sparking pop songs through the first half of the LP are never less than thrilling, with the strangely euphoric “Good Times Are Gone Again” in particular standing out. The feel of the song is reminiscent of The Killers’ cheerily upbeat “All These Things That I Have Done” but, subverted by the doomy power chords and unsettling chorus (“bad things are happening now”), one comes away in spite of this with the sense that there is little alright with the world. Elsewhere, the ‘Box Elder’-ish speed jangle and bubblegum harmonies on “Altar” show that Fred can still easily keep up with the popkids if he wants to, but it’s not until after this that Aftering really starts to throw its punches.
‘House Show, Late December” provides the stunning centrepiece to the album, eight minutes of lyrical savagery set to a slow, shimmering guitar and shuffling drums, with occasional atonal squeals of various kinds in the background. Here, Thomas’s vocal escalates over the course of the song into a slow burning fury, with a general sense of anxiety early on shading later into abject disgust at the world around him – “everything you say there’s nothing wrong with there’s something wrong with” – as it grinds inexorably onwards. Even better is ‘Mother, Daughter, Pharmaprix’, possibly my favourite song in a strong field. A gorgeous, stumbling guitar arpeggio provides its backbone, as Thomas calmly details his uncomfortable desire to shrink away from his friends and music, before laying out a spellbinding tableau of a mother arguing with her teenage daughter in a pharmacy, as beautifully observed as it is desperately moving. As always, the sense of something slightly askew is in the air, accentuated by the slightly processed sound of the guitar and the tiny, barely perceptible mistakes that find their way into the playing.
While the faster, poppier tunes on the first side have a hugely appealing urgency to them, it’s the slower, more reflective material that perhaps remains with you longest. Taken as a whole, Aftering is not always an easy listen to say the least, and can be a little draining at times; the intensity and gravity of emotion on display sometimes, especially on “House Show” and the even more grisly “Slow Waves”, demands an amount of work from the listener that often isn’t expected in these days of instant gratification. But the important thing is that the dividends on offer far outstrip the effort required; this is a massively varied, richly rewarding LP, a second future classic in a row (though there may be more, slugabed as I am in chasing up back catalogue) and a record that frequently manages to be fearless, without forgetting that it’s important to be fun sometimes as well.