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21 December 2017

Eimear McBride on Tindersticks (1995 album): “It has shaped how I think about life”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

By Eimear McBride

The first time I heard this was on the tape-of-a-tape a friend gave me at drama school in 1995 – in the years since, I’ve bought it many times over, in every format, so my conscience is clear. I remember wandering home in the dark through Kentish Town, north London, listening to it on my Walkman and not really having any idea what was going on. It was like nothing I’d heard before. From the mercurial dissonance of its opener, “El Diablo en el Ojo”, to the last delicate strains of “Sleepy Song”, I was in its thrall and, many hundreds of listens later, that’s how I remain.

“Tiny Tears” is probably the album’s most readily recognisable track, from its outing in The Sopranos, but I prefer the sorrowful poignancy of “No More Affairs”, followed later on by what feels like a miniature, internal trilogy: “Cherry Blossoms”, “She’s Gone” and “Mistakes”. Picking out favourites feels like a transgression, though. The album’s emotional cohesion is such a huge part of its pleasure that not listening from beginning to end, every time, is to risk missing the deeper submersion it offers.

There’s a true, if disconcerting, magic to the three-way wedding of the album’s beautiful, intricate scoring, the cigarette-stained, shame-filled intimacy of the lyrics and Stuart Staples’s deep, dark, world-weary singing voice. The tension created between these elements produces songs that manage to be both epic and domestic all at once. For example, the third track, the spoken/sung “My Sister”, follows the story of the narrator’s younger sister from their childhood pillow fights in which she’d wield a Stanley knife, to her temporary blindness, to causing the death of their mother – and cat – by smoking in bed, through the scandal of moving in at 15 with a gym teacher, to becoming partially paralysed when, in a rage, he hits her over the neck with a Bullworker, finishing with her premature death at the age of 32.

Bathos and tenderness are balanced throughout; from the heartbreak of the child – in her blindness, conjuring magical images – to the sighting of the teacher, released from jail, coaching a non-league football team in a Cornwall seaside town, to the brother’s final assessment of why she wanted to be buried in a cheap coffin. It’s a painful, wonderful song in which each facet adds up to create a whole, glimmering, tragic life. The merest hint of histrionic in either the delivery, or the music beneath it, would tip the song into farce and that never happens.

This album, the band’s second – their excellent first album is also simply called Tindersticks – is the love of my musical life. I’ve listened to it incessantly since I was a teenager and I never grow tired of it. It has shaped how I think about life, love, men, sorrow and regret. It’s a masterpiece and an undervalued one at that.

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special