ALBUM REVIEW: Sleeper – The Modern Age

8/10

ALBUM REVIEW: Sleeper - The Modern Age

On 22nd March 2019, after a musical hiatus of 21 years, Sleeper releases their new album “The Modern Age”. It wasn’t meant to happen. In fact, the band had promised each other it never would. “We had no plan to get back together”, says frontwoman Louise Wener – “Sometimes life throws you a massive curveball. You end up jumping off the cliff, just to see what it feels like”.

Forming in 1993 as Britpop’s cork well and truly popped, Sleeper are synonymous with that time, enjoying huge critical and commercial success in the mid-90s and in just five years the band achieved eight Top 40 singles across three Top 10 albums with well over 1,000,000 sales. Wener became an iconic front-person, heading up a movement that brought women centre stage in guitar music.

A support slot with friends Blur and the release of hit single ‘Inbetweener’ heralded the start of an important journey for the band and their debut album “Smart” became one of the first albums associated with Britpop. Their second release “The It Girl” featured four singles and airplay chart hits ‘What Do I Do Now?’, ‘Nice Guy Eddie’, ‘Sale of the Century’ and ‘Statuesque’. In 1996, Sleeper recorded a cover of “Atomic” which featured in the film “Trainspotting” after Blondie refused to allow the use of the original version. They then went on to release their third album “Pleased to Meet You” in 1997. Sleeper adorned front covers across the music press and appeared numerous times on key music shows of the time like TFI Friday, Jools Holland and Top Of The Pops, an episode of which Louise Wener presented. Together, the band played the main stages of Reading, Glastonbury, V Festival, along with sold-out touring across all of the UK and a support slot with REM at Milton Keynes Bowl.

But in 1998 after the third album struggled with sales and public interest in the Britpop scene declined Sleeper decided to part ways. Frontwoman Louise Wener carved out a successful career as a writing teacher and novelist including her autobiography: “Different for Girls: A girl’s own true-life adventures in pop” (2010) while guitarist Jon Stewart and drummer Andy Mcclure lectured in music studies.

In 2017, after a break of just 20 years, the band reformed and hit the road to perform in four British cities as part of the Star Shaped Festival alongside other Britpop acts including Space, Dodgy and The Bluetones. Alongside Wener were original members and “Sleeperblokes” (a term coined by the music press for the often ignored males in the band) – Jon Stewart and Andy Mcclure (now married to Wener). Newly joined bass player Kieron Pepper (previously of The Prodigy) completed the line-up. The band went on to headline an eleven-date tour of smaller venues in England in the Spring of 2018 before spending the Summer recording “The Modern Age” with their longtime producer, Stephen Street – a relationship that clicked into place again right away. They tracked live at Metway studios in their adopted city of Brighton, before decamping to Street’s studio in West London to add the finishing touches.

“Paradise Waiting” opens the album on familiar-sounding territory with a blast of choppy guitar, organ loops and indie drums together with Wener’s soft and sultry vocal. Although, sonically nothing has changed here the song is self-assured and confident. First single release “Look At You Now” initially appears to be referencing Sleeper’s comeback, but it’s a protest song at heart: a howl for the politically homeless in a landscape where a reasoned debate has given way to vitriol. And there are SYNTHESIZERS! On first listen the shimmers of synth reminded me of the opening notes to Vangelis’ theme on the 80s film “Chariots of Fire”. This is a great track, one of the strongest on the album – it’s totally evocative of that Brit-pop era and the inspired waves of electronica give it depth and texture. Wener proves again that she isn’t just a female fronting a band but a clever wordsmith. An example of which is the opening line of verse two: “Can you trust a future that never comes?”

There are trippy influences of psychedelia on the current sparkling single, “The Sun Also Rises” with Wener offering hope and positivity after a personal loss. The track gives the album it’s most uplifting moment. “It’s a song about celebrating life. Living every moment, appreciating what you have and letting optimism back in.” Title track “The Modern Age” explores today’s relationships with plucks of cool cello and regular beats of drum and bass. Sweeps of synth in the background appear reminiscent of DB Boulevard’s 2002 hit “ Point of View” – with Wener declaring in the catchy chorus: “No, you can’t have it all, but everything you’ve got is beautiful/ Love, in the modern age – sometimes it’s a cradle, sometimes it a cage”.

The upbeat tempo of “Car Into The Sea” belies the subject matter of the occasional monotony and boredom in life and relationships as Wener optimistically sings of a life with endless possibilities. The edgier “Blue Like You”, layered with spiky guitars and repeated organ notes has Wener assuming a more sullen vocal as she sings of having a down day: “No I don’t feel OK, I wish I was someone different, somewhere different on a different day”. It is the next track, the sublime “More Than I Do” that Sleeper shine – a bittersweet song of a marriage break up masterfully portrayed in Wener’s observational, cynical lyrics akin to a female Morrissey: “No, I don’t wish you pain and I don’t wish you damage, I just hope that you buck up more than I do now we’ve finished all this”. Perky plucks of guitar and orchestral strings add brightness as Wener’s conflicting feelings of the break up are laid bare – on one hand, regret and sadness – the other, impending liberty and freedom: “When you leave, I won’t forget, the way you take your tea/But I will wear the dress you said I look fat in”

The song then surges in energy as the guitars fizz, the drums kick in and Wener packs a punch with a reverbed, distorted vocal. It’s a deliciously clever song – lyrically strong, sharp and provocative. The album closes with “Big Black Sun” – an apology song in which Wener huskily says “sorry” for just about everything she has said and done. The track keeps a mellow momentum with relaxed, smooth drum beats, cool keyboards and samples of “backwards” sounds creating a hallucinogenic and hazy vibe. Sleeper’s music has always been characterized by astute, observational lyrics and big, hook-driven melodies and they are on fine, melodic form on this latest release. ‘The Modern Age’ is the outward-looking sound of a band revitalized and refreshed. Covering subjects from motherhood and social media to personal loss and relationships. The Modern Age retains Sleeper’s classic pop/indie sensibilities with a shiny, new, contemporary feel.

With a handful of record store appearances planned for March to perform golden oldies and new songs, together with a series of UK tour dates and summer festivals, it begs the question: Could 2019 be the year Sleeper awakes?

The Modern Age’ will be available digitally, on limited edition coloured vinyl, black vinyl and CD. The album will be released on the band’s own Gorsky Records.

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