❉ Jay Bea discovers that Sleeper’s return to yesterday brings music pleasure for today!
Although the band had been asked to reform many times, the return of Sleeper was something fans had stopped thinking was a possibility until their surprise return to the live scene in 2017. Very warmly received at Star Shaped Festival, a tour followed in 2018 and momentum built quickly ahead of their first new material in more than 20 years – 2019’s The Modern Age.
Fans were looking forward to tour dates with The Bluetones in 2020 to celebrate the 25th anniversaries of both acts’ debut albums. Sadly, we all know what came next.
Amid the difficulties of lockdown, Sleeper managed to regroup – and there was a long-overdue project they knew they could finally work on.
Singer-songwriter Louise Wener mentioned in her 2012 memoir that she, Andy Maclure and Jon Stewart had continued working on material for a while after the band split. In 1999-2000 Wener got as far as recording tracks at studios owned by George Michael – with Michael himself even laying down some backing vocals. The so-called lost album had remained locked away on a computer hard-drive, none of it ever released.
As well as finding time to release a single with The Wedding Present’s David Gedge (Mr Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang), in 2020 the band devoted time to cracking open the contents of that hard drive and finishing what they started. The results were revealed on limited issue CD in December, with the LP following in January.
Winding back the clocks
With This Time Tomorrow, I was curious to hear something released out of chronological order with the rest of Sleeper’s output. With all the negative feelings that must have followed being dropped by their record label Indolent in the late 90s, the recordings which became this album were their first steps on the road to creative freedom – a freedom they retain with their own label, Gorsky Records.
Opening track Tell Me Where You’re Going is a bittersweet slice of guitar pop drawing parallels between their 1999 experience and today:
“You’re still alone / Halfway from home / All the time life drifts away / But if you tell me where you’re going / We could go with you / This time tomorrow we could be there.”
Wener says: ‘Tell Me Where You’re Going in particular seemed to sum up the way the world is feeling now, as if life is on pause.”
When the band majored in jangly, grunge-infused guitars on earlier songs like Alice in Vain or Bedhead, Wener’s vocal was sometimes left in the background. That DIY garage rawness gave their music a youthful urgency. On new tracks like Tell Me Where You’re Going, New Year’s Kiss and We Should be Together the vocal is front and centre. This gives the impression that Wener’s voice has grown stronger in the intervening years – except of course that the vocal tracks were mostly laid down 21 years ago.
The production finish in 2020 has given a mature smoothness to Sleeper, though I would argue that a change of direction started as early as 1997’s third album Pleased to Meet You and the brilliant single She’s a Good Girl, whose relative low charting position was the first indication that they’d soon be parting ways with Indolent. (Lack of support when things get interesting from an artistic development point of view: the curse of so many bands and the record company’s long-term loss, in my view).
Wener’s vocals have always switched between the ethereal and the upfront, making the most of the crackle at the upper end of her range (think Kim Carnes in her breathier moments). The crackle is in evidence on the emotive Goodbye Thing To Do – “Sitting in my room / staring at the walls / chatting with my soul / screening all my calls / Think I’d like to go now /Think I’d like to stop.” – it’s another track in which Wener found past and present parallels: “It was written at a time when I was completely lost and I felt there was no way forward. I think everyone’s had moments like that this last year.”
Deliberately crossing genre lines
With Let’s Start A Fire and Cab Song there can be no clearer sign of a break away from a link to any earlier ‘Britpop’ sound. There are shades of jazz and big band, with ‘shooby-doo’ vocals. The first thing I thought when I heard Cab Song was how much it reminded me of Kirsty MacColl’s In These Shoes? If this had been released back in 1999 Cab Song could easily have found its way onto the soundtrack of a Sex and the City episode in place of MacColl’s song.
This album has more layered and dueted vocals than I recall on Sleeper songs of the past, and it’s a style that suits Wener’s voice well. That said, I wasn’t a fan of the distorted effects on New Year’s Kiss or Poor Henry (whose ‘down the telephone line’ sound made it hard for me to distinguish the lyrics).
Where other experimentation was at play it definitely worked for me though, such as the electronica-inflections of the mainly acoustic Hard Hat (another favourite): “I still lose myself, I just lose myself / I try to find my compass but it’s gone.”
I do gleefully wonder what music critics would have made of This Time Tomorrow were it around back then, particularly on the point of artists from different genres collaborating. Track 7 on the album, We Are Cinderella, contains the aforementioned George Michael contribution.
It’s a sublime song and my favourite on the album, though not because of Michael’s presence – which is a trace in the background on two choruses; a breathy understated presence allowing Wener’s vocal to shine. At turns playful and wistful while also being lyrically dark in places, this is simply another great piece of pop.
“We are a bunch of neurotics / we have no sociable skills / we have no need for narcotics / we have a pocket of our own pills.”
“We swim around in the shallows / we gave up making it rich / our minds are less than elastic / we know exactly where we don’t fit.”
Wener had never shied away from mentioning her love of pop in interviews despite the sneering mentality of a certain cadre of 90s music journalists. On getting to work with George Michael she says: “It was thrilling to have one of my teen heroes offering advice and contributing to my song.”
Though I may stand to be corrected, I can’t think of a single other star of the Britpop era who teamed up with a pure pop icon of Michael’s standing.
Speaking of standing, another piece of evidence that should help to keep Sleeper’s past critics on mute is the hand of producer Stephen Street, who has now worked on every Sleeper album. Sleeper themselves, of course, share production credits. It should be noted that three-quarters of the band were never mere ‘Sleeperblokes’ as branded, but strong musicians who have continued to work on a wide range of projects away from the band (see the BIMM profiles of Maclure and Stewart for evidence).
Back to the present
Wry observations of character and acute warnings about getting stuck in bland suburbia – plus their sonic nods to Hole, Pixies and more – were the initial draw for me when I first loved Sleeper back in 1994/95. I have spent many hours during the writing of this review listening to their back catalogue in and out of chronological order, as ever unable to say for sure what my favourite Sleeper tracks are. I’m going to post a Sleeper piece on my own blog soon too, as doing this review has opened up some memories of the time.
And I still have my unused ticket for that double anniversary gig with The Bluetones that should have taken place last year. I will always want to hear the songs from Smart, and The It Girl and Pleased to Meet You. But, like the band, I’m middle-aged too now. It’s time to move on.
And Sleeper will provide. With their reflective, perhaps more rounded sound, they’re giving us new soundtracks for the coming years. They weren’t ready for that role in 2000, but they’re delivering it now.
❉ ‘This Time Tomorrow’ is available on limited edition red vinyl, CD and digital download from the band’s online store.
❉ Jay Bea is a social historian and writer, blogging and (still) gigging around the outer edges of London. Her novel set during the Britpop era may see the light of day in 2021. Her social and cultural history website and podcast, 1,000 Londons, is in development. Twitter: @London_and_East Instagram: @eeastlondonista. © Jay Bea