A Protest: We Cannot Forget The Clientele’s Strange Geometry
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
Perhaps the biggest miscarriage of artistic justice in the world is when I know there is a perfect song, or worse, a perfect record, and I can’t casually refer to it in conversation knowing that it’s carrying the emotional resonance I want it to — so I can be vulnerable without having to use my own words.
We have those touchstones. All of us. I can walk into a room and if I say, “Kathy, I’m lost,” most people will understand that I’m existentially lonely, that I’m speaking but not expecting an answer. But they know that because Simon & Garfunkel (rightly) earned a place in the canon and became a part of our common shared knowledge. But in a world where people hear music based more on algorithms of things they already know they like, it’s hard to ever have a contemporary Simon & Garfunkel. We’ve lost the ability to use pop music shorthand and make it meaningful. Think about the drastic difference in emotional heft and timbre in a line like “Kathy, I’m lost” versus “I know why that hotline blings.” Can you — should you — enjoy the latter? Absolutely. Music should have permission to be fun.
But what about when someone makes something perfect and I feel like ghost, proselytizing a piece of art that no one stateside is ready to talk to me about? Because that feeling always washes over me when it’s time — and it is very often time — to listen to The Clientele’s 2005 record Strange Geometry. How this record has remained “mine,” I don’t know: everyone I play it for falls in love. But there’s the trick: I have to introduce and then initiate The Clientele.
Welcome to your initiation. I hope you like tremendous dream lyrics, synesthesia, wonder, and even moments of truth so blunt, it will knock the wind out of your stomach.
I won’t lie, I’ve been going “door to door” for years. When people say, “Oh, Mercury must be in retrograde,” I often follow up with the album title — “Yes,” I’ll say. “It’s like there’s some strange geometry.”
People might not immediately know what I mean, but I have my hooks in them. Alasdair MacLean is an expert at stringing phrases together that resonate — do you remember the hand bells we all seemed to play with in elementary school music? Strange Geometry — both the record and the phrase — are handbells. They resonate in your pulse, they curl and travel up your arm and into your heart or the pit of your stomach.
The first single from the record, “Since K Got Over Me,” is often my favorite psychedelic-tinged pop song (though it isn’t always my favorite song on the LP: that’s the magic of perfection). But how can you look away from a song that talks to you like this?
All my senses shot
My hands are fixed
I'm pretty tired of making lists
It's just this emptiness
I can't chase it away
And when the evening paints the streets
When the evening paints the streets
It's like walking on a trampoline
I don't think I'll be happy anyway
Just scratching out my name
But everything's so vivid
And so creepy
Since K got over me
Since K got over me
This isn’t even the first verse — you can cut any one line from any song MacLean has written, hold its feet to the flames, and watch it drown in orange while staying completely intact. The songwriting is bullet proof. Someone who goes from “When the evening paints the streets/ It’s like walking on a trampoline,” which is some of the best imagistic and physical lyricism I know, and then goes into a simple emotion with perfect clarity — “I don’t think I’ll be happy anyway” — how is that anything but magical? Linking the surrealistic aspects of a breakup, the way the world melts like Dali’s clocks around you, to the absolute simplest language to convey deep hurt, MacLean has mastered how to move us into an unreal space drenched in tremolo and reverb, his soft, reassuring voice the Virgil to our Dante, and then slap us with a moment of perfect clarity. That’s not to say he rests on what I consider a perfect chorus: in one verse, it’s “vivid and creepy,” in one it’s “lucid and creepy,” and of course in the final verse it’s replaced with the phrase — my phrase, the one I use to start conversations about The Clientele or just to try and connect, to let everyone know someone is off — “and every night, a strange geometry/ since K got over me.”
Strange geometry. That’s how I felt in the hospital after my stroke. I listened mostly to Bowie. Recently, upon listening to “Blackstar” with new ears again, I asked my husband, “Did this song bother you?” He said that of course it did, but it brought me comfort, so it stayed on. I listened to a lot of music that was in 5/4 time; I listened to industrial and psychedelia; and when I was at my most desperate, in the rehabilitation center where I was afraid I’d be on a walker forever, I listened mostly to The Clientele. “Spirit” had always been one of my favorites, but the song became almost human to me — a friend. Maybe that’s why I want to be able to talk about this record with you so much. I don’t want to discuss perfect art: I want to discuss how art enhances humanity, how it can embrace the parts of us that we can’t see in the mirror and how we can embody it. Maybe I just want you to meet my friends, these songs that different parts of me live in. Morning Katie, who hadn’t had to walk around the facility in a ton of pain yet, identified with the almost defiant reclamation in MacLean’s chorus vocals: “I’ve got the spirit/ I’ve got the spirit,” but Afternoon Katie — who had been forced to look into lights we later found out were actually doing harm, who’d shuffled around and fallen, who, at barely 31 years old, was the youngest person there — well, she identified more with his pocketed, knowing whisper at the end of the chorus: “It won’t last.”
I can say “Kathy, I’m lost” all day. But what I need to be able to tell you is “I’ve got the spirit — it won’t last.” Not because I don’t want the spirit to last. Because I know by the end of the day, my joints are going to be swollen and tired, and I am relieved — so damned relieved — to have exact words for how I feel. I need this to be universal. I need you to meet this song, my friend, and let these words carry the emotional weight I am so tired of carrying around. MacLean made it so I don’t have to tell you every single day that I’m sick and getting sicker. He had better words. Let me use his.
You know the part that blows my mind? That’s not even the best line in the song. “Spirit” features the revelation that has become a mantra for me: “I’ve got so much fear inside me/ nothing’s true.” Any time I’m really and truly afraid, I have to remind myself that I’m easily manipulated and ruled by fear — and that isn’t true.
Fear isn’t true. It’s an illusion. That doesn’t mean you can’t be afraid — it just means that when you are, you’re susceptible to catastrophizing. Like if, say, you were in a rehab center and you had good days and bad days, it wouldn’t be hard to convince you that you’d never walk again.
I use a cane, now. That’s all. So much fear... and nothing was true.
But to me, perhaps the best way to describe The Clientele, and especially this record, is to borrow the wonder and delight from one of the song titles: “Impossible.” MacLean sings this softly, as though he really is seeing miracles. That word, over and over — think of the rhythm. Think it in your head. Impossible. Impossible. Impossible. He’s not discouraging — perhaps that’s the beauty here. He’s experiencing a revelation and sharing it with us.
There's a place that we can go
At the end of a long slow day
Streetlamps fuse the rising night
I feel so far away
When you came back late, from the garden
I couldn't turn my eyes
And I was dead
Outside in the crowded pines
Ships are sailing though the wood
Leaving in the space between
The Hovis homes, the railway heath
I can see my freedom but I need a little time
Your hair wet and your arms full
You were dead, you were alive
The defined setting, a “place that we can go,” seems like a safe escape. But is it? It’s a world between worlds, a state between states. It’s living. It’s dead. Ships are sailing through the trees. Impossible.
But still there. That’s the beauty of The Clientele. I have all of their records and they’re constantly playing around here, especially Strange Geometry — I need that kind of crossover language, the words that feel right. Everything about this record feels right. Sometimes when I listen to “Impossible,” I imagine the place we go is somewhere that doesn’t exist in the corporeal, but there I am anyway. Witnessing miracles, caught between life and death, and all the while fascinated and awed by the images, the knowledge that my entry into this place is special and was an invitation.
Please come with me. When there’s strange geometry, when everything’s lucid and creepy, when you have the spirit but it won’t last— don’t stay alone. We can be alone together, caught in the web of dreamy guitar effects, and we can marvel — together — at the impossible
That’s why you — why everyone — needs The Clientele. Who else will bring you there? How else will we connect in this world? ▲
Katie Darby Mullins teaches creative writing at the University of Evansville. In addition to being nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net multiple times, she's been published or has work forthcoming in journals like Barrelhouse, The Rumpus, Iron Horse, HOBART, Hawaii Pacific Review, BOAAT Press, Harpur Palate, Prime Number, Big Lucks, Pithead Chapel, and she is the Executive Writer for the Underwater Sunshine Fest.